Aarhus anniversary: 20 years of environmental democracy

20.6.2018 - GENEVA
Members of the signatory countries in Geneva
PHOTO: Martin Skalsky / Arnika

Twenty years after its adoption, the Aarhus Convention remains a unique mechanism enforcing people’s right to healthy environment. The UNECE’s international agreement, signed in 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus, gives the citizens of Europe and the former Soviet Union the right to information, participation in decision-making and the access to justice in environmental matters.

Though the anniversary itself takes place on June 25, the ceremony is being held today at a meeting of signatory countries at the UN centre in Geneva.

The Aarhus Convention is primarily important for the countries with long-lasting problems in protecting the human rights and enforceability of the law. The governments are required to submit regular reports on the compliance of the Aarhus Convention. Also, people can submit complaints to a Compliance Committee. To date, it has dealt with almost fifty cases; some of them have helped to promote better law enforcement in concerning countries.

Stop the persecution

“Environmental activists are increasingly the targets of repressive measures and retaliatory actions. It is crucial that people exercising their environmental rights do so free from fear,” states the UNECE’s official announcement of the ceremony.

The persecution of environmental activists was also one of the topics of the last Meeting of the Parties taking place in November 2017 in Budva, Montenegro. The particular cases of oppression are being monitored by the Czech organization Arnika and published online at stop-persecution.org.

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"The Aarhus Convention is crucial for many countries that lack the appropriate protection of environment-related civic rights. And that’s not only the case of Eastern Europe or the Balkans. For example, people in the Visegrad countries face repression against civil society and restrict democratic space," Arnika’s chairman Martin Skalsky explains

The document named officially the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was signed on June 25, 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus and entered into force three years later. To date, 46 states and the European Union have signed the document. Only Liechtenstein and Monaco has yet not ratified the agreement, the last countries doing so in recent years were Iceland and Switzerland.

UNECE press release on the 20th anniversary of Aarhus Convention
List of the countries under the Aarhus Convention
Map of the countries under the Aarhus Convention

The Aarhus Convention compliance in some countries

Ukraine - Even though, there were successful steps towards environmental democracy, Ukraine has a lot to do. Its citizens can’t find almost any information in online databases, and they still have to file an official written request to the authorities. In many cases, it is difficult to learn about the decision-making process being launched.

One of the brighter cases were the complaints of the Society and Environment, a non-governmental organization that has succeeded in improving the environmental impact assessment processes for constructions.

In the meantime, large industrial cities suffer from heavy air pollution on a long-term basis, but neither good monitoring of pollution levels nor the public involvement is secured. Some activists or protesters were being harassed and even physically attacked in recent past.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - The situation is far from ideal in the Balkan country since responsible authorities often do not fulfil their obligations. In 2017, the official report on compliance with the convention was not assessed at all and for two years no focal point for people to contact was appointed into office.

According to the report on compliance of the convention processed by Centre for the Environment and Arnika, there is a substantial issue of enforceability of the written law and the voice of the public is often not taken into account. People still have to file an official written request to the authorities, which reply fully to only 55 % of those, the organizations claim. In many cases, it is difficult to even learn about the decision-making process being launched.

Even though the courts of justice have finally begun exploring the options of engaging actively in the cases of spatial planning and the granting of environmental permits, the construction processes are one of the most dubious. Mainly the recent hydropower plant boom negatively affects local citizens, while they have almost none information on the projects nor a power to oppose. The villagers in Fojnica, Kotor Varoš or Kruščica have stood against the construction, but some of them were oppressed for this.

Belarus - In general, the accession to the Aarhus Convention set a long-term trend of adjusting the current legislation to ensure the rights of citizens to access environment-related information, public participation. Many positive changes in legislation were made thanks to decisions of the Compliance Committee and the Meetings of the Parties in past years.

During the mentioned last MOP in Budva, Montenegro, the government of Belarus was accused of persecuting environmental activist, for which it received an international reprimand. However, further improvement is necessary, e.g. in the early public participation in decision-making. The existing procedures are insufficient and do not provide immediate protection in cases of activists persecution. Cases of persecution and pressure on activists require prompt actions. The consideration of communications for several years may have irreversible consequences, and therefore do not provide adequate protection for activists.

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