International Law

New Zealand is party to several international agreements which place obligations on the government to protect New Zealand’s biodiversity. International conventions cannot be directly enforced through New Zealand courts, unless their provisions are incorporated into national legislation. However, they do still have some legal effect. Where the meaning of a provision in a piece of legislation is unclear, a presumption of statutory interpretation requires that it is interpreted in a way which is consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations, so far as the wording allows. In addition, international conventions can have considerable moral force within the country. The government does not usually wish to be seen as acting in contravention of the country’s international obligations.

Tokerau Bay Red Seaweed (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

International Plant Protection Convention (1952)

The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) aims to prevent the introduction and spead of plant pests at an international level.

Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (1971)

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) provides for coordinated action to conserve wetlands. The Ramsar Convention was initiated in 1971, and New Zealand became a party in 1976. It applies to all wetlands in the country, including marine wetlands.

The concept of the ‘wise use’ of wetlands is at the heart of the convention. It is defined as ‘the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development’. 2579

New Zealand currently has six wetlands protected under the convention:

  • Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island
  • Firth of Thames in the Hauraki Gulf
  • Kopuatai Peat Dome on the Hauraki Plains
  • Whangamarino wetland in the northern Waikato
  • Manawatū Estuary near Foxton
  • Awarua Waituna Lagoon in Southland

Since this review identification of important wetlands has increased. The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 requires protection of significant values of wetlands, and the maintenance of ecosystem health of all wetlands.

Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972)

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) protects cultural and natural heritage of ‘outstanding universal value’.

The World Heritage Convention was adopted by UNESCO in 1972 and New Zealand became a party to it in 1984. The Convention arose from international concern about the loss of outstanding natural and cultural heritage, and ‘that deterioration or disappearance of any item of cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all nations of the world’. 2582

Parties to the Convention are obliged to identify heritage of ‘outstanding universal value’ within their territory. A World Heritage Committee considers areas nominated by governments and decides which will be inscribed on the World Heritage List. When submitting areas for inscription, governments are required to demonstrate full commitment to their preservation, including that adequate long term protection measures are in place. The main benefit of inscribing sites on the World Heritage List is that it gives their natural and cultural values international profile and highlights the international interest in their on-going protection. The convention also provides for a List of World Heritage in Danger, which identifies inscribed sites which are subject to threat or imminent danger, and this serves to focus international effort on addressing the situation.

New Zealand currently has three World Heritage Sites:

  • Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand  was inscribed as a natural site in 1986 with the size of the site increased in 1990
  • Tongariro National Park was inscribed as a natural site in 1990 and then for cultural values in 1993
  • Subantarctic Islands were inscribed as a natural site in 1998

In 2007 New Zealand proposed eight further World Heritage Sites:  

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1975)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) controls trade in specimens of selected species, with the aim of ensuring that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

CITES entered into force in 1975 and New Zealand became a party in 1989. It has been implemented into national law through the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989.

CITES establishes a permitting system for the import, export, re-export and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention. The convention lists species according to the level of protection required and this determines what trade restrictions are to apply:

  • Appendix 1 species – are those threatened with extinction and trade in these is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.
  • Appendix 2 species – are those for which trade needs to be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival.
  • Appendix 3 species – are those which are protected in at least one country which has asked other contracting parties for assistance in controlling trade.

In New Zealand, the Director-General of Conservation is the CITES Management Authority and the Department of Conservation issues permits to trade in a species regulated by the CITES. The New Zealand Customs Service and officials under the Biosecurity Act 1993 are responsible for the control of the movement of CITES species at the border.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (1979)

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention) provides for coordinated action to conserve migratory species throughout their range.

The Bonn Convention was first signed in 1979 and entered into force for New Zealand in October 2000. Migratory species threatened with extinction are listed in Appendix I of the Convention. Migratory species that need, or would significantly benefit, from international co-operation are listed in Appendix II. Contracting parties are obliged to:

  • Promote, cooperate in and support research relating to migratory species
  • Endeavour to provide immediate protection for migratory species included in Appendix I
  • Endeavour to conclude agreements covering the conservation and management of migratory species included in Appendix II

Such agreements have been concluded for a range of migratory species including the ‘Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels’ to which New Zealand is a party along with 12 other nations. This agreement aims to prevent a decline in the birds’ populations through the implementation of an action plan to reduce fishing-related mortality and maintain habitats.

Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) addresses conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of genetic resources.

The convention arose out of international concern about the rapid loss of biodiversity worldwide. It was a landmark document, being the first global agreement to comprehensively address biodiversity issues. 2583 New Zealand ratified the convention in 1993 and it came into force the same year.

The convention has three main objectives: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of genetic resources (article 1). In order to achieve these objectives, the convention sets out a range of obligations which contracting parties must meet. These include obligations to (article 8):

  • Develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity (or adapt existing documents);
  • Identify important components of biodiversity and monitor them;
  • Identify and monitor processes and activities having, or likely to have, significant adverse impacts on biodiversity;
  • Establish a system of protected areas;
  • Manage biological resources important for the conservation of biological diversity inside and outside protected areas;
  • Rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems and promote the recovery of threatened species;
  • Control risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms;
  • Prevent the introduction of, and control or eradicate, alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species; and
  • Develop or maintain necessary legislation and regulatory provisions for the protection of threatened species and populations. 

Every year or so representatives of the parties to the convention meet to discuss implementation and other matters at a ‘Conference of the Parties’. At these meetings additional commitments can be made. At the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, the nations of the world recognised the crucial role of biodiversity in ensuring sustainable development and called for greater efforts to implement the CBD. 2508

Parties to the convention are required to report regularly on their progress towards implementing their obligations. New Zealand filed its fifth report in 2014 which provides useful information on the current state of biodiversity in New Zealand and how it is being managed. 2509 The New Zealand Biodiversity Action Plan (filed in 2016) provides information about some of the significant national actions being undertaken to make progress towards the Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity by 2020 (including the internationally agreed Aichi Biodiversity Targets). 

More information about the CBD can be found on the convention website at





  5. Glowka L, F Burhenne-Guilmin and H Synge, 1994, A guide to the convention on biological diversity, The World Conservation Union, Gland 

Last updated at 12:54PM on April 11, 2018