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UNCED marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in early June 1972. The Stockholm meeting was the first global conference on the environment---indeed the first world conference to focus on a single issue. Because it helped usher in the modern environmental era and because it bore many similarities to UNCED, it is worth considering what happened at Stockholm.

Acting on a proposal from Sweden, the UN General Assembly in 1968 called for an international conference to examine "problems of the human environment...and also to identify those aspects of it that can only, or best be solved through international cooperation and agreement."[1] Maurice F. Strong, then head of the Canadian foreign aid agency, headed a conference secretariat, and a preparatory committee met four times between 1970 and 1972. The conference initially was designed to focus on environment issues, but development issues were added at the urging of developing countries.

One hundred and fourteen governments sent delegations to Stockholm. The entire Eastern bloc boycotted the conference because East Germany was excluded because of extant political conflicts over the postwar division of Germany. Three parallel conferences of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took place outside the official proceedings: the Environment Forum, the Peoples Forum, and Dai Dong. The Environment Forum had the official blessing of the UN conference, but the Peoples Forum and Dai Dong took a more confrontational approach as the Vietnam War sparked much radical protest. NGOs drafted a set of alternative environmental principles. The conference produced a Declaration on the Human Environment, an Action Plan for the Human Environment, and a Resolution on Institutional and Financial Arrangements. The Stockholm declaration contains 26 principles concerning the environment and development, many of which had not yet been formally recorded in internationally recognized texts. Principle 21, in particular, is considered by international lawyers to have served as a precedent for much of the environmental diplomacy of the past two decades; it acknowledges state sovereignty over national resources but stipulates that states have "the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction." The Action Plan contained 109 recommendations spanning 6 broad issues: human settlements, natural resource management, pollution of international significance, educational and social aspects of the environment, development and environment, and international organizations.

Stockholm's lasting impact has never been seriously assessed. In the assessments that have been offered speculatively, the creation of the UN Environment Programme, the call for cooperation to reduce marine pollution, and the establishment of a global monitoring network have been cited as of especially lasting significance. It has also been argued that the practice of preparing for such a massive conference galvanized public opinion and educated governments about what was then an issue of only recent salience.[2] Development issues, though included in the conference's agenda and addressed in the Action Plan recommendations and declaration principles, were clearly of secondary priority and never seriously addressed in the follow-up efforts after the Stockholm conference.

1. UN Resolution 2398, as quoted in L. K. Caldwell, International Environmental Policy: Emergence and Dimensions, 2d ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990).

2. Ibid., 53; R. Clarke and L. Timberlake, Stockholm Plus Ten (London: Earthscan, 1982); The Agesta Group AB, Twenty Years After Stockholm 1972-1992 (Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1982); and J. McCormick, Reclaiming Paradise (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1989).