Citizen participation in decision making? In some countries it is nothing more than a theory

30.6.2014 - MAASTRICHT/PRAHA/ALMATY

People have no access to objective information concerning the quality of air, water, soil, and chemical pollution releases into the environment. Likewise, the public’s rights are often ignored during environmental decision-making. People have no tools to defend themselves; trials are expensive and court judgements are rarely independent. Such is the conclusion of the alternative reports on compliance with international obligations in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine which were presented by non-governmental organizations in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Today, June 30, the Fifth Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, also known as the Aarhus Convention, will launch in Maastricht.

“Along with Ukraine and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan belongs to countries where citizens repeatedly complain about poor access to information regarding the environment, exclusion from decision-making processes, and non-functional or inequitable courts. As many as three times, the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention have acknowledged three times that international obligations had been severely violated by each country. At the Meeting of the Parties, a warning can be issued to such black sheep by the member States,” explains Vendula Zahumenská, the lawyer representing the Czech non-governmental organization Arnika, which focuses on public participation in decision-making procedures.

“The informational openness and democratic nature of decision-making in our countries is far from the level common to Europe. That is exactly why international conventions and the support of global society are so important for our public interest groups. They help us advocate civil rights and look for inspiration in countries where decision-making mechanisms function better,” said the independent expert on public participation in decision-making, Aliya Tonkobayeva.

“When reading the official report, one might get the impression that Kazakhstan suffers only from a few slight insufficiencies which can be quickly resolved. In reality, the problems are of a longstanding and systemic nature. Authorities do not provide citizens with timely, relevant and reliable information sufficient for decision-making. When making decisions about the environment, thousands of citizens’ rights are being violated. An independent judiciary is practically non-existent,“ as described by Sergei Kuratov, the Chairperson of non-governmental organization Green Salvation in Kazakhstan.

“There are no real mechanisms for the implementation of public rights guaranteed by the Aarhus Convention in Turkmenistan. The regime of secrecy, as well as restrictions on public organizations and initiatives, only aggravate Turkmenistan‘s actual obligations under the Aarhus Convention, which it is currently ignoring,” said Sergey Solyanik, a consultant for Crude Accountability.

“The public authorities do not obey Ukraine's commitments under the Aarhus Convention. 'Ratify and then ignore' has been the predominant approach of Ukraine towards most multilateral environmental agreements for the last 15 years, ” said Andriy Andrusevych, from the Resource & Analysis Center "Society and Environment".

Today, non-governmental organizations from Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, and Germany will give a performance to show how the public’s rights are actually threatened in Kazakhstan, warning against the devastation of the mountains near the south Kazakhstani metropolis of Almaty. The delegates of the Aarhus Convention conference will get a nibbled apple from the natural area that is planned to undergo privatization for the development of a luxurious ski resort. This case clearly illustrates local practices: while permission to issue construction approvals are in full swing, citizens have a lack of information and minimal space to express their concerns.

“We are appealing to the delegates not to close their eyes when confronted by such a situation. The Aarhus Convention is a unique tool which enables citizens to participate in decision-making regarding their cities, communities, and landscape. While examples of good practice can be seen in a range of states, elsewhere citizens’ rights are rather neglected by the authorities. The big task of the convention is to help the countries that fall behind and to find more effective mechanisms for advocating the public’s rights,” says Zahumenská.

Notes for editors:

1/ More information about the Aarhus Convention

2/ 5th Meeting of the Parties to the Aahus Convention in Maastricht

3/ Information on events organized by NGOs within the Maastricht conference regarding the situation in Kazakhstan

4/ Kazakhstan: no information, no public, no justice (alternative situation report published by NGOs)

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