7. The principle of common but differentiated obligations

Between and within nations, there are great inequalities in areas – in people’s health and nutrition, access to education and technology, for example. Many of these differences are long standing, with roots deep in our history, and they continue to affect how different nations and individuals contribute to the problems we face. For example, a poor family in an area without electricity may contribute little or nothing to global warming, while a rich family with a heated house and two cars will contribute a lot more. So, when addressing complex issues such as global warming, we need to recognize that some have more responsibility for creating the problem, or a greater ability to make changes that will have an impact. And while everyone must act, the level of obligation will be different.


This principle finds its roots in the notion of the common heritage of humanity and is a particular manifestation of general principles of equity in international law. It acknowledges historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to global environmental problems, and addresses their respective economic and technical capacity to tackle these issues. There are two distinct yet interdependent components: common responsibility, and differentiated responsibility.

Download CISDL draft legal working paper on integration

Download CISDL legal working paper on the 7 Future Justice principles


This principle is already widely recognized in international law or practice. For example:

UN Convention on Climate Change

“In their actions to achieve the objective of the Convention and to implement its provisions, the Parties shall be guided, INTER ALIA, by the following:

1. The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof…

7. The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.”

Articles 3.1 and 4.7, UN Convention on Climate Change, 1992

Stockholm POPs Convention

“Noting the respective capabilities of developed and developing countries, as well as the common but differentiated responsibilities of States as set forth in Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development”.

Preamble, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 2001

World Trade Organization

“1. Notwithstanding the provisions of Article I of the General Agreement, contracting parties may accord differential and more favourable treatment to developing countries, without according such treatment to other contracting parties.”

“5. The developed countries do not expect reciprocity for commitments made by them in trade negotiations to reduce or remove tariffs and other barriers to the trade of developing countries, i.e., the developed countries do not expect the developing countries, in the course of trade negotiations, to make contributions which are inconsistent with their individual development, financial and trade needs. Developed contracting parties shall therefore not seek, neither shall less-developed contracting parties be required to make, concessions that are inconsistent with the latter’s development, financial and trade needs.”

Paragraphs 1 and 5, Decision on Differential and More Favourable Treatment, Reciprocity and Fuller Participation of Developing Countries (The Enabling Clause), 1979

“The Panel urges Malaysia and the United States to cooperate fully in order to conclude as soon a possible an agreement which will permit the protection and conservation of sea turtles to the satisfaction of all interests involved and taking into account the principle that States have common but differentiated responsibilities to conserve and protect the environment.”

United States – Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products,
15 June 2001, WTO Doc. WT/DS58/RW (Panel Report), paragraph 7.2.

Rio Declaration

“States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem.  In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities.  The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

Principle 7, the Rio Declaration, 1992

Johannesburg Plan of Implemetation

“Fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development. All countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, with the developed countries taking the lead and with all countries benefiting from the process, taking into account the Rio principles, including, inter alia, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities as set out in principle 7 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Governments, relevant international organizations, the private sector and all major groups should play an active role in changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns....”

Paragraph 14, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, 2002

Questions and resources

The 3 questions below can be used to focus upon this principle, and to test the action of any law or policy:

7.1 Does the law/policy take into account historical and other inequalities, including who has benefited from past activities and policies, when imposing obligations, and provide avenues to redress such inequalities where possible?

7.2 Is the law/policy appropriate and well-adapted to the society or region’s present level of technology, scientific knowledge, human/financial resources, cultural values and traditions?

7.3 Does it avoid placing inappropriate burdens on vulnerable groups, or imposing costs on those least equipped to bear them?

Of all the Future Justice principles, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility is the one that plays out in a range of international negotiations that expose the political dynamics between rich and poor countries. And although a part of many agreements, it is not always found in the detail of the obligations; and when it is found, it can be expressed in weak, non-binding language. In trade negotiations, the principle is reflected in ‘special but differentiated treatment’ for developing countries and forms part of the legal texts.

The trade-related links below have been selected because we think they contain information which may help policy-makers develop laws and policies in the context of this principle and these questions.

  • The World Trade Organisation Agreements contains over a hundred provisions on special and differentiated provisions for developing countries. On the WTO webpage you will find a description of these provisions, and an overview of their implementation.

145 such provisions classified into 6 groups are identified in 22 agreements (as of 2000):

  • Provisions aimed at increasing the trade opportunities of developing country Members (12 provisions)
  • Provisions that require WTO Members to safeguard the interests of developing country Members (49 provisions)
  • Flexibility of commitments, of action, and use of policy instruments (30 provisions) 
  • Transitional time periods (18 provisions)
  • Technical assistance (14 provisions)
  • Provisions relating to measures to assist  least-developed country Members (22 provisions)

They have been criticized by the UNESCAP from the point of view of developing countries, for example for being non-binding.

  • This report of a study initiated by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs analyses the development of the provisions for special and differential treatment within the WTO system and the actual and potential development effects of existing provisions. It puts forth a number of suggestions for how to improve the current system, including a revised Enabling Clause.