Prior to the adoption of the CBD, access to biological resources was frequently regarded as a free-for-all. Bioprospectors were able to take resources out of their natural habitat and develop commercial products without sharing benefits with states or local communities. This paper asks how CBD-style benefit-sharing fits into debates of justice. It is argued that the CBD is an example of a set of social rules designed to increase social utility. It is also argued that a common heritage of humankind principle with inbuilt benefit-sharing mechanisms would be preferable to assigning bureaucratic property rights to non-human biological resources.
However, as long as the international economic order is characterized by serious distributive injustices, as reflected in the enormous poverty-related death toll in developing countries, any morally acceptable means toward redressing the balance in favor of the disadvantaged has to be welcomed. By legislating for a system of justice-in-exchange covering nonhuman biological resources in preference to a free-for-all situation, the CBD provides a small step forward in redressing the distributive justice balance. It therefore presents just legislation sensitive to the international relations context in the 21st century.