The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe was established in 1947 to encourage economic cooperation among its member states. It is one of five regional commissions under the administrative direction of United Nations headquarters. It has 56 member states, and reports to the UN Economic and...
Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters
, usually known as the Aarhus Convention
, was signed on June 25, 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus
Aarhus or Århus is the second-largest city in Denmark. The principal port of Denmark, Aarhus is on the east side of the peninsula of Jutland in the geographical center of Denmark...
. It entered into force on 30 October 2001. As of July 2009, it had been signed by 40 (primarily European and Central Asian) countries and the European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...
and ratified by 41 countries. It had also been ratified by the European Community, which has begun applying Aarhus-type principles in its legislation, notably the Water Framework Directive
The Water Framework Directive is a European Union directive which commits European Union member states to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies The Water Framework Directive (more formally the Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23...
The Aarhus Convention grants the public rights regarding access to information, public participation and access to justice, in governmental decision-making processes on matters concerning the local, national and transboundary environment. It focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities.
The Aarhus Convention is a multilateral environmental agreement through which the opportunities for citizens to access environmental information are increased and transparent and reliable regulation procedure is secured.
It is a way of enhancing the environmental governance
Environmental governance is a concept in political ecology or environmental policy related to defining the elements needed to achieve sustainability. All human activities -- political, social and economic — should be understood and managed as subsets of the environment and ecosystems...
network, introducing a reactive and trustworthy relationship between civil society and governments and adding the novelty of a mechanism created to empower the value of public participation
Public participation is a political principle or practice, and may also be recognised as a right . The terms public participation may be used interchangeably with the concept or practice of stakeholder engagement and/or popular participation.Generally public participation seeks and facilitates the...
in the decision making process and guarantee access to justice: a "governance-by-disclosure" that leads a shift toward an environmentally responsible society.
The Aarhus Convention was drafted by governments, with the highly required participation of NGOs, and is legally binding for all the States who ratified it becoming Parties. Among the latter is included the EC, who therefore has the task to ensure compliance not only within the member States but also for its institutions, all those bodies who carry out public administrative duties.
Each Party has the commitment to promote the principles contained in the convention and to fill out a national report, always embracing a consultative and transparent process
The Aarhus Convention is a right-based approach: public, present and future generation, have the right to know and to live in an healthy environment.
A distinction is made between "the public", all the civil society's actors, and the "public concerned" precisely, those person or organisations affected or interested in environmental decision-making (e.g environmental NGOs) .
"Public authorities" are the addressees of the convention, namely, governments, international institutions, and privatized bodies that have public responsibilities or act under the control of public bodies. Private sector, for which information disclosure depends on voluntary, non- mandatory practices, and bodies acting in a judicial or legislative capacity are excluded.
Other significant provisions are the "non-discrimination" principle (all the information has to be provided without taking account of the nationality or citizenship of the applicant), the international nature of the convention , and the importance attributed to the promotion of environmental education
Environmental education refers to organized efforts to teach about how natural environments function and, particularly, how human beings can manage their behavior and ecosystems in order to live sustainably. The term is often used to imply education within the school system, from primary to...
of the public.
The Three Pillars
- Access to information: any citizen should have the right to get a wide and easy access to environmental information. Public authorities must provide all the information required and collect and disseminate them and in a timely and transparent manner. They can refuse to do it just under particular situations (such as national defence) ; UNECE, 2006)
- Public participation in decision making: the public must be informed over all the relevant projects and it has to have the chance to participate during the decision-making and legislative process. Decision makers can take advantage from people's knowledge and expertise; this contribution is a strong opportunity to improve the quality of the environmental decisions, outcomes and to guarantee procedural legitimacy
- Access to justice: the public has the right to judicial or administrative recourse procedures in case a Party violates or fails to adhere to environmental law
Environmental law is a complex and interlocking body of treaties, conventions, statutes, regulations, and common law that operates to regulate the interaction of humanity and the natural environment, toward the purpose of reducing the impacts of human activity...
and the convention's principles.
The Aarhus convention is a "proceduralisation of the environmental regulation",; it focuses more on setting and listing procedures rather than establishing standards and specifying outcomes, permitting the parties involved to interpret and implement the convention on the systems and circumstances that characterize their nation. This model embodies a perfect example of a multi-level governance
Multi-level governance is a public administration theory that originated from studies on European integration. The authors Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks were the first to develop the concept of multi-level governance in the early 1990s. Their theory resulted from the study of the new structures...
The risk could lay in a loss of time and resources that should be otherwise invested in defining the outcomes, notwithstanding the fact that it renders the convention vague, weak and open to more than one interpretation.
Other critiques could be done to the fact that private bodies are excluded from this mandatory procedures(Mason, 2010), moreover we can also doubt that NGOs involved are actually representing anybody , ordinary citizens often do not have the financial possibility to participate effectively and are therefore represented by this organisations. The differences between the participants and social groups' resource inequalities can suggest the possibility of an unequal environmental protection
Environmental protection is a practice of protecting the environment, on individual, organizational or governmental level, for the benefit of the natural environment and humans. Due to the pressures of population and our technology the biophysical environment is being degraded, sometimes permanently...
The Convention has a unique Compliance Review Mechanism, which can be triggered in four ways:
- a Party makes a submission concerning its own compliance,
- a Party makes a submission concerning another Party's compliance,
- the Convention Secretariat makes a referral to the Committee, or
- a member of the public makes a communication concerning the compliance of a party.
The Compliance mechanism is unique in international environmental law, as it allows members of the public to communicate concerns about a Party's compliance directly to a committee of international legal experts empowered to examine the merits of the case (the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee
The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee was established to fulfill the requirement of Article 15 of the Aarhus Convention on review of compliance to establish arrangements for reviewing compliance with the Convention.-Compliance mechanism:...
). Nonetheless, the Compliance Committee cannot issue binding decisions, but rather makes recommendations to the full Meeting of the Parties (MoP). However, in practise, as MoPs occur infrequently, Parties attempt to comply with the recommendations of the Compliance Committee. As of August 2009, 41 communication from the public - many originating with non-governmental organizations - and 1 submission from Party had been lodged with the Convention's Compliance Committee.
Pollutant Release Protocol
The Kiev Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers
to the Aarhus Convention was adopted at an extraordinary meeting of the Parties on 21 May 2003, in Kiev
Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and the largest city of Ukraine, located in the north central part of the country on the Dnieper River. The population as of the 2001 census was 2,611,300. However, higher numbers have been cited in the press....
Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. It has an area of 603,628 km², making it the second largest contiguous country on the European continent, after Russia...
. 36 States and the European Community signed the Protocol. As of July 2009, 18 countries had ratified the Protocol. The European Community had also ratified the Protocol, leading to the expectation that the other 25 EU member States would follow suit.
The Kiev Protocol is the first legally binding international instrument on Pollutant Release and Transfer Register
Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers are systems to collect and disseminate information on environmental releases and transfers of toxic chemicals from industrial and other facilities....
s (PRTRs). PRTRs are inventories of pollution from industrial sites and other sources such as agriculture and transport. The objective of the Protocol is "to enhance public access to information through the establishment of coherent, nationwide pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs)." The Protocol places indirect obligations on private enterprises to report annually to their national governments on their releases and transfers of pollutants.
Parties to the Protocol need not be Parties to the Convention. The Protocol is in this sense a free-standing, international agreement. The Kiev Protocol on PRTRs will enter into force 90 days after the sixteenth State ratifies or accedes to the agreement.
An amendment to the Aarhus Convention on "Public Participation in Decisions on Deliberate Release into the Environment and Placing on the Market of Genetically Modified Organisms" was adopted at the Second Meeting of the Parties on 27 May 2005, in Almaty
Almaty , also known by its former names Verny and Alma-Ata , is the former capital of Kazakhstan and the nation's largest city, with a population of 1,348,500...
Kazakhstan , officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a transcontinental country in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Ranked as the ninth largest country in the world, it is also the world's largest landlocked country; its territory of is greater than Western Europe...
. As of August 2009, it had been ratified by 21 countries. The GMO amendment will enter into force 90 days after at least three-quarters of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention ratify it.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Kofi Atta Annan is a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the UN from 1 January 1997 to 31 December 2006...
(1997-2006) has said, "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 citizens' 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."
The influence of the Aarhus Convention also extends beyond the environmental field. At the 2nd Internet Governance Forum
The Internet Governance Forum is a multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue on issues of Internet governance. It brings together all stakeholders in the internet governance debate, whether they represent governments, the private sector or civil society, including the technical and academic...
, held on 12-15 May 2007, in Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro , commonly referred to simply as Rio, is the capital city of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city of Brazil, and the third largest metropolitan area and agglomeration in South America, boasting approximately 6.3 million people within the city proper, making it the 6th...
, the Convention was presented as a model of public participation and transparency in the operation of international forums.