Happy together

Celebrating a decade of history, the Aarhus Convention has a fresh agenda.

February 26, 2009 | By Pavel Antonov

The outcome of the Third Meeting of Parties to the Aarhus Convention, which took place in Riga, Latvia back in June, was cause for most participants to celebrate. NGO coalition European ECO Forum claimed in a press statement that it had successfully helped steer the UNECE's Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in a "strong future direction." What ECO Forum meant was that the new strategic plan for the convention includes elements to improve public participation, provisions for access-to-justice funding, and parameters for expanding to the global level. According to the plan, parties to the convention maintain that "serious environmental, social and economic challenges faced by societies worldwide cannot be addressed by public authorities alone without the involvement and support of a wide range of stakeholders, including individual citizens and civil society organisations."

Civil society and governments have worked together on Aarhus since its very start.
Courtesy of UNECE

Aarhus Convention architects and its current secretariat also celebrated. Ten years after being signed, Aarhus is in force across Europe and Central Asia, and widely viewed as the foremost legally binding instrument protecting the public's environmental rights. Addressing a high-level contingent of the meeting, UNECE Executive Secretary Marek Belka said that the core principles of Aarhus "empower ordinary members of the public to hold governments accountable and to play a greater role in promoting more sustainable forms of development." This is an important function for a legal instrument, and valid in countries with accountable governance, but not necessarily the usual state of affairs.

Yes, some scepticism lingers, mostly concerning Europe's ability and willingness to actually grant more rights to its citizens. The European Union vetoed a proposal by Norway to improve citizens' rights of access to information from private companies. Also, NGO efforts to add wording to a strategic plan that would outline a clear perspective for broad and practical access to justice for environmental NGOs and concerned citizens ultimately ended in failure.

It was promised at the meeting to establish a task force to oversee the second pillar of the convention on public participation-an area of implementation that is historically weak, according to ECO Forum. "We NGOs have been insisting all along that the Aarhus Convention needs to address the weaknesses in the convention's pillar on public participation," said John Hontelez, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau and head of the Public Participation Campaign.

The meeting of parties also resulted in a decision on how to interpret amendments to the convention entering into force. This will have significant impact on when and how the GMO amendment, adopted in Almaty three years ago, will enter into force. "Despite the declarations of all parties to ensure rapid entry of the GMO amendment, this week the EU in fact practically brought the future of the amendment into doubt," European ECO Forum legal expert Serhey Vykhryrst.

Meanwhile, the Riga Declaration, adopted at the meeting, recognises that implementation presents the main challenge for Aarhus. Thirty-five national reports on implementation showed whether and how the goals of the Convention are applied in practice. Alternative reports produced by civil society in several countries, including Hungary and Slovakia, were much more critical of Aarhus is actually being implemented. Albania, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Turkmenistan and Ukraine were formally asked to be more active in the convention's implementation. Conditional cautions were issued at the meeting to Turkmenistan and Ukraine, both of whom had already been found to be in non-compliance at the previous meeting of parties. Unless certain steps are taken by the end of the year, and then verified by the Compliance Committee to have been taken, disciplinary action will take effect from May 1, 2009.

Riga delegates agreed to renew the task force's mandate on access to justice, having identified this convention 'pillar' as the one continuing to pose the greatest challenges. The task force on electronic information tools, where REC has been influential, will also be renewed; this is part of an effort to promote the use of information and communication technology in support of increasing public participation in environmental decision making. The meeting encouraged countries "to develop and implement e-government and e-participation applications at all levels, thereby furthering access to government information and services and enabling the public to participate electronically in environmental decision making."

In a special statement, the parties called for ratification of the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers in order to bring it into force by 2009.