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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 43 - Thursday, 13 March 2008
The Bern Convention: A tool for nature conservation and implementing international biodiversity obligations in Europe
By Carolina Lasén Díaz, Secretary of the Bern Convention
The Bern Convention in figures
The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats was signed in Bern in September 1979 and it has been in force since June 1982. The so-called “Bern Convention” is the regional treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, negotiated at the Council of Europe in the late 1970s. With the recent ratifications of Serbia and Armenia, the Bern Convention will have 47 Contracting Parties in 2008, including the 27 member States of the European Union, the European Community, other European countries, and four African States.

Its aims
The objective of the Bern Convention is to conserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats, especially those requiring the cooperation of several States. The Convention places a particular importance on the need to protect endangered natural habitats and vulnerable species, including migratory ones. The text of the Convention is complemented by four appendices providing the lists of wild species that are protected under the Convention. Appendix I includes “strictly protected wild flora species” and Appendix II lists the strictly protected wild fauna species, while those species listed in Appendix III can be “exploited” through regulation and in accordance with the Convention. In this sense, Appendix IV lists the “prohibited means and methods of killing, capture and other forms of exploitation” under the Bern Convention.

The regional treaty for biodiversity conservation in Europe
The Bern Convention was a very innovative biodiversity convention at the time of its birth, with many features and provisions that were ‘unique’ at the time. The Bern Convention takes account of the role that people play in the wider environment and their interactions with nature. It further recognises the value of wild flora and fauna that needs to be preserved and passed to future generations. The Convention incorporates important principles such as those of precaution, integration, participation, and cooperation, long before they were mainstreamed. In short, the Bern Convention is a tool for achieving sustainability and as such it is an important contribution, “made in Europe,” to the sustainable development of life on this planet. Biodiversity is a critical element to guarantee peoples’ right to a healthy environment and achieve sustainable development, two goals directly related to the values and objectives of the Council of Europe.

In 2004, the annual meeting of the Parties to the Convention (the Standing Committee) adopted a Declaration on the role of the Bern Convention in the preservation of biological diversity, where they recognised this regional treaty as an “instrument of major importance for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity at the regional level by reason of its aims, its geographical coverage and commitment of its Parties to implementation.” Bern Convention Parties work together, in a spirit of partnership and cooperation, and together with observer countries and organisations such as other biodiversity conventions and non-governmental organisations, operating from the local to the global level. The Secretariat of the Bern Convention has signed several memoranda of cooperation with relevant institutions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the European Environment Agency, IUCN, and Planta Europa.

The CBD has acknowledged the important role that regional and subregional mechanisms and networks play in promoting the implementation of the CBD, urging for further enhanced cooperation with relevant international conventions, organizations and bodies to enhance synergies. In this sense the Secretariats of the Bern Convention and the CBD signed a Memorandum of Cooperation in 2001, which was revised and enhanced in 2007 and will be formally signed during the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP-9) to the CBD in Bonn, Germany, in May 2008.

The institutional framework of the Convention
The Standing Committee is the governing body of the Bern Convention. It includes all Contracting Parties and observers, and it holds its annual four-day meetings at the Council of Europe premises in Strasbourg, usually in late November each year. The Standing Committee adopts recommendations and resolutions concerning measures to achieve the Convention’s objectives and improve its effectiveness. It also monitors the implementation of the Convention and provides guidance on its implementation and further development. Over the years, the Standing Committee has set up several Groups of Experts to work under its guidance and address specific issues affecting the conservation status of the different species and natural habitats protected by the Convention. To date, the following Groups of Experts meet on a regular basis to discuss conservation action and provide guidance for the conservation of: amphibian and reptiles; birds; invertebrates; and plants. Other active Groups of Experts are currently addressing the challenges of invasive alien species; the setting up of the Emerald Network of areas of special conservation interest; and the interactions between biodiversity and climate change.

Key successes
For over its more than 25 years of operation, the Bern Convention has tackled critical issues long before they were included in legally binding policy instruments across Europe. Many species action plans and targeted recommendations have been agreed over the years, as the Standing Committee has endorsed close to 130 recommendations  ranging from the protection of a single species in a specific site due to a concrete threat (recommendation on the protection of Caretta caretta in Laganas Bay, Zakynthos, Greece) to wider species protection (recommendations for the conservation of invertebrate species, recommendation on wild plant species subject to exploitation and commerce) and habitat conservation (recommendations on endangered natural habitat types and areas of special conservation interest).

The Bern Convention has combined very concrete and practical action plans and conservation actions together with more strategic and topical instruments, in some cases breaking new ground, such as the 2003 European Strategy on Invasive Alien Species; the 2006 European Strategy for the Conservation of Invertebrates; and the 2007 European Charter on Hunting and Biodiversity, all three examples of policy documents agreed by European states in areas where no such guidance existed previously. In this sense, the Bern Convention plays a complementary role to the European Commission, as some of the issues first explored in the framework of the Bern Convention have later became EU policy and/or law.

Current hot topics
Specific guidance on species and habitats conservation management to adapt to climate change will be submitted to the Standing Committee in November 2008; as well as the new European Strategy for Plant Conservation, 2008-2014, prepared by Planta Europa; a draft Code of Conduct on horticulture and invasive alien plants and a European Action Plan for the Conservation of the Common hamster (Cricetus cricetus).

2008 and beyond
The Bern Convention continues to work on ‘traditional’ conservation action such as species and habitats protection while exploring new and emerging issues such as invasive plants, climate change, and ecological networks. This broad coverage of relevant issues, leading to concrete guidance and strategic documents, together with the active partnerships and cooperation developed over the years with other biodiversity conventions, the scientific community and non-governmental organisations, are some of the Convention’s strengths that continue to motivate European countries to join this multilateral environmental agreement from the seventies and become part of the “Bern Convention family” of the 21st century.

Carolina Lasén Díaz
Secretary of the Bern Convention
Strasbourg, 29 February 2008
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