Putting Aarhus into action

The REC plays an important role in convention implementation in SEE

March 21, 2009 | By Nathan Johnson
Albania is just one of many countries that can benefit from enhanced public participation in environmental decision making. Photo: REC Albania

In late 2004, the REC began a two-year project titled "Improving the Practices of Public Participation: Next Steps in Implementing the Aarhus Convention in South-Eastern Europe" to support implementation of the Convention and the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo (territory currently under interim UN administration).

In addition, pilot projects were completed within the two-year period in each of these SEE countries and entities. Each of the 12 projects is representative of how public participation can influence environmental decision-making at local levels.

Twelve labours

A project in Bosnia and Herzegovina focused on monitoring air quality in Tuzla. The city has five monitoring stations, but citizens were receiving information about air quality only once a month.

Addressing the need to safeguard public health, the "Citizens of Tuzla Have a Right to Know" programme, implemented by the Center for Ecology and Energy, was developed to obtain data dissemination on a daily basis, to have the data delivered in user-friendly formats, and to develop a legal mechanism to hold industrial operators responsible for exceeding established pollution limits.

"Air-quality data started being released daily in February 2006, just two months into the project," said Project Coordinator Sabina Jukan. "The data is also televised, and we've enjoyed good media support."

Jukan said that one disadvantage is that the emissions data is not specific enough to identify the biggest polluters.

"We do know that one of the bigger ones is the steam power plant, and we're taking various actions against the operators," said Jukan. "We've also met with various experts to consider how the plant should compensate the city for pollution."

Meanwhile, FYR Macedonia's Centar, Gazi Baba and Zelenikovo are three municipalities lacking means of communication to solve environmental problems. Working with mayoral support from each of the three communities, the ORT (Training for Sustainable Development)

NGO worked with administrators, citizens and other stakeholders in a pilot project to implement an Aarhus-level "system for environmental decision-making."

The primary activity of the programme was to conduct research into public opinion in order to reveal which problems needed to be addressed.

"The project established an 'open gate' for citizens, and more and more people are insisting on participating in meetings and debates on environmental problems," said Project Coordinator Vesna Jankova.

Jankova added that Gazi Baba's citizens have participated in several meetings to discuss problems concerning sewerage and water-supply systems, and restoration and reconstruction efforts.

Montenegrin NGO Green Home carried out its "Participate! Decide! Win!" project in the municipality of Danilovgrad. Green areas comprise approximately 15 percent of Danilovgrad's total area, but these lands have been misused or abused with no enforceable regulations in place.

Completed in May 2006, the project activated citizens to participate in drafting and adopting the Regulation on Physical Planning and Protection of Green Urban Areas. Local authorities and institutions, citizens, the media and NGOs all enjoyed closer cooperation during the project.

"There was such a high level of stakeholder involvement because the problem of solid-waste disposal at the local level was so widely recognised," said Project Manager Natasa Turakovic. "Taking a 'learn by doing' approach, we helped show how to influence the decision-making process. But it will still take a long time to turn knowledge and public awareness into high-level public participation."

Justice is served?

Without public recourse to a court of law or administrative proceeding, the first two pillars of the Aarhus Convention (i.e. access to information and public participation in decision-making) mean little or nothing at all. Unfortunately, however, legal recourse granted to citizens in some parts of Europe can often be denied to citizens in other parts. Germia, a green NGO based in Pristina, Kosovo, is one such organisation that has discovered the narrow confines of its present legal situation.

When the Kosovo Parliament decided to embark on construction of an administration and protocol centre in a protected wooded area, the Germia Coalition was established as a joint initiative of environmental NGOs in an effort to stop the construction. Even though an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out on the proposed project, the Pristina City Council granted a building permit without holding a public hearing.

"By building the administrative and protocol centre, all the environmental regulations and laws were ignored, as well as the urban plans for this zone," said Germia Coalition member Nehat Bllacaku.

Germia would have had a very strong opportunity to challenge the procedure in a different legal setting. What developed instead was a classic example what can happen without a proper mechanism in place to achieve acceptable levels of access to justice.

"Given the disregard of the persons responsible, we decided to resort to the court system," Bllacaku explained, "including the Supreme Court and Pristina's District Court, which is responsible for the zone in question. We gathered all necessary proof against construction of the building, but the process was slow and difficult."

Bllacaku added that, in the end, the Supreme Court rejected Germia's appeal, arguing that the NGO — not being the owner of the land in question — had no standing to bring the case to court.

The lower courts later challenged Germia's legal status, either out of ignorance or a willingness to exploit the NGO's lack of legal expertise. According to the Aarhus Convention, anyone — including individual citizens and environmental NGOs — would have the right of access to justice in such a case. Nonetheless, in this instance, the centre was completed by the time it took Germia to exhaust its court possibilities, which in a more mature legal environment would result in suspension or termination of the construction project.

"The District Court, to this day, has not conducted an inquiry into this case. The local courts aren't yet independent from external influences," said Bllacaku.

As part of a project, the REC held a training workshop for NGOs, judges and representatives of ombudsmen's offices to help tackle some of these difficulties. The general aim of the session was to help participants identify: violations of rights and procedures; standing requirements related to cases under discussion; injunctive relief and other legal remedies; best possible strategies for making appeals or initiating court cases; and overcoming barriers to accessing justice.

With much of SEE exposed to several forms of air, water, soil and waste-related pollution, the UNECE Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) has become an important tool for informing members of the public about the status of their environment.

Using a comprehensive database, people can gather the knowledge and information needed to effect change and influence environmental decision-making in an informed and constructive way.

As part of the Aarhus project, the REC organised a three-day study tour in the Czech Republic, home to one of the region's best integrated pollution registers. In late 2006, selected participants — including ministry officials, agency representatives and authorities from Albania, Montenegro and Serbia — convened at the Czech Environmental Information Agency, where they were given practical, hands-on training in database building, operation and maintenance. They also had the opportunity to hear several experts address a wide range of PRTR-related topics.

It was stressed at the event that NGOs play an important role in serving the public's environmental needs, and that active NGO involvement will advance the cause of bringing the benefits of PRTR expertise and technology to the SEE region.

For more coverage on the Balkan environment, see the REReP webpage.