The Aarhus Convention
This article considers the Aarhus convention. This convention has been ratified by 40 countries, mainly from the Europe and Central Asia. The Aarhus convention has also been ratified by the European Union and is an important basis for the Water Framework Directive.
Origin of the Aarhus Convention
The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was agreed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 1998. It provides certain rights for the public and imposes obligations to authorities regarding access to information and justice as well as to decision-making structures through public participation.
It is the first international treaty which sets down "the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being" - however only in reference to the procedural rights the convention covers. It acknowledges that the obligation to present and future generations can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders. It is advocating a new understanding for public involvement in the negotiation processes of international agreements.
The three main pillars of the Aarhus Convention
The Aarhus convention is based upon three main pillars. These three pillars support the central idea that the general public has rights to participate in the governance of their country, other than tradional democratic rights. These three pillars are:
Access to Information
The Access to Information pillar has a passive and an active aspect. The passive or reactive aspect deals with “the obligation on public authorities to respond to public requests for information” so this is basically the right of the public to information they want on environmental issues. The active aspect is mainly about the right to accurate information and therefore the obligation of providing accurate environmental information by for example “collection, updating, public dissemination” etc. One important definition relating to this pillar is the one on “environmental information” which is defined by the UNECE (UNECE) to include the following: “a non-exhaustive list of elements of the environment (air, water, soil etc.); factors, activities or measures affecting those elements; and human health and safety, conditions of life, cultural sites and built structures, to the extent that these are or may be affected by the aforementioned elements, factors, activities or measures”. There are some exemptions relating to access to environmental information and they usually involve matters like national defence, public security, justice and personal privacy. Before they are imposed, these exemptions are reviewed very well and often face many restrictions.
The convention lays down detailed rules for public participation procedures, including when and which information should be made available to the public. Its list where public participation in decision-making is obligatory includes activities in the fields of energy, metals, minerals and chemical industries, waste management, major wastewater treatment plants etc.
The public participation pillar gives people the right to public participation by setting some minimum participation standards in environmental decision-making. These requirements are similar to the ones for an Environmental Impact Assessment. The public participation requirements are:
- The “public concerned” should be notified timely and effectively
- Time should allow for public participation
- Acquiring information should not cost the public any money
- The decision-makers should take into account the public’s opinion
- The decision should be made public timely, with full text and reasons to back it up
Access to justice
The convention foresees increased public access to the courts in relation to environmental decisions, including the right to appeal to higher authorities and independent courts. Access to Justice is the pillar that guarantees the right to justice in the following contexts: “review procedures with respect to information requests, review procedures with respect to specific (project-type) decisions which are subject to public participation requirements and challenges to breaches of environmental law in general”. This pillar supports the other two pillars and “also points the way to empowering citizens and NGOs to assist in the enforcement of the law”. Besides guaranteeing the right to justice in those three contexts, the pillar also requires that all of the procedures in the three contexts are carried out “fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive”.
Enforcement of the Aarhus convention
The convention lacks international enforcement bodies or compliance mechanisms but provides only that the parties "shall establish, on a consensus basis, optional arrangements of a non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative nature for reviewing compliance". Critics interpret the convention as having the weakest compliance section of all international agreements to date.
Significance of the Aarhus convention
Although regional in scope, the significance of the Aarhus Convention is global. It is by far the most impressive elaboration of principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, which stresses the need for citizen's participation in environmental issues and for access to information on the environment held by public authorities. As such it is the most ambitious venture in the area of environmental democracy so far undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations.
It is the first piece of European legislation that combines environmental rights and human rights and it is also the first document completely about public participation in environmental matters. The Convention is based on the premise that greater public awareness of and involvement in environmental matters will improve environmental protection. It is designed to help protect the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being. The idea of the Århus Convention is that greater public awareness and public participation in environmental matters will help to ensure the successful application of environmental law. All EU member states are party to the Convention. EU Council Decision 2005/370/EC approves the Convention as a whole. It was adopted on the 25th of June 1998 in the Danish city of Århus at the fourth Ministerial Conference in the “Environment for Europe” process and entered into force in October, 2001 and the process of ratification still continues.
- UNECE Aarhus Convention website
- EU website on the Aarhus Convention
- Wikipedia article on the Aarhus Convention
- Aarhus Treaty text
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