The public and civil society have a crucial role to play in tackling key environmental challenges. To make the most of this potential, continued efforts are needed to uphold their rights to shape environmental decision-making.
To this end, the Working Group of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) came together for its twenty-seventh meeting (Geneva, 26-28 June 2023) to address a range of pressing issues.
Reflecting on the major milestones achieved during 25 years since the Convention’s adoption, Parties to the Convention together with the representatives of international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia and other key stakeholders, such as child and youth defenders, welcomed accession to the Convention of Guinea-Bissau in April 2023 opening new horizons for environmental democracy in Africa and worldwide.
Upholding environmental democracy in Ukraine
The ongoing war in Ukraine following the invasion by the Russian Federation affects the implementation of the Aarhus Convention, with devastating impacts on people’s lives, on the environment and on social and economic development. Despite these difficulties, Ukraine is making significant efforts to implement the Convention and its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers.
In particular, progress has been made in the area of public access to environmental information and its digitalization through the newly created EcoSystem digital platform, which will also include National Pollutant Release and Transfer Register. To promote transparency and public participation in decision-making on environmental matters, the EcoZagroza system for controlling and monitoring the environmental situation was also introduced to provide up-to-date information on environmental damage and on air quality and radiation. A special procedure has also been developed to facilitate public access to information on environmental matters, whilst addressing security considerations. Public discussions are also being held online in view of the lack of suitable safe shelters.
Parties and representatives of civil society commended Ukraine for its efforts to meet its obligations under the Aarhus Convention and the Protocol in the current context, and expressed their support and solidarity.
Protecting environmental defenders
Growing trends that put environmental defenders at higher risk of being penalized, persecuted, harassed, for example, by publicly labelling them as “eco-terrorists”, and growing restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms in view of changing policies and law enforcement, were among issues of high concern noted by Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention. He also stressed the critical importance of protection of environmental and human rights defenders in the decision-making process for mining and large infrastructure projects. He further focused on the issue of civil disobedience, drawing particularly attention to inappropriate responses by authorities, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in law enforcement, and disproportionate punishment, prosecution and criminalization, including heavy penalties, fines, and prison terms. He recalled article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for the right of peaceful assembly. A youth environmental defender voiced in this regard that youth and child activists are often portrayed as radicals by the government officials, presenting a serious threat to their safe public participation.
The issue of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) was highlighted as a common form of harassment of environmental defenders, which presents a major obstacle to public participation. Other forms of intimidation noted by environmental defenders included cyber bulling, sexual and death threats and physical attacks.
At the same time, several successful examples of initiatives to protect environmental defenders were demonstrated: updated Guidelines of the Finnish Foreign Service require the Government to take a number of measures to guarantee the participation of human rights defenders in decision-making related to the environment; the Aarhus Centre in Skopje, North Macedonia, played a positive mediating role in resolving a conflict between the public and a developing company regarding the Ilovica mines; and safe public participation was ensured in the Viennese Waste Management Plan and Viennese Waste Avoidance Program 2019-2024.
Advancing public participation in decision-making on large-scale infrastructure
While it can bring important benefits to society, large-scale infrastructure has significant impacts on the environment. Such projects require a vast amount of metals and minerals and this demand is expected to increase significantly. The mining sector is regularly challenged consistently by the public for its environmental impact. In this context the Aarhus Convention helps to preventing potential conflicts by promoting effective and inclusive public participation, where the meeting enabled the sharing of good practices, challenges and lessons learnt in a thematic session on led by Italy.
This included a decision on a hydropower plant in Georgia that was largely supported by the public in view of the company’s active work at the early stage to consider all opinions properly, and timely provision of comprehensive information to the public. Examples from Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, demonstrated inadequate public participation in a rail line construction in Israel, and suggestions to adopt a law to enforce public participation at early stages of planning process, simplifying public objection submission procedures and presenting the planning information in a clear, concise and non-technical manner. During the discussion the importance of engaging people and groups in vulnerable situations was stressed. Participants suggested to explore opportunities for synergies between the Convention’s work and the processes under the United Nations Environment Assembly dealing with sustainable and resilient infrastructure and minerals and metals management.
Promoting principles of the Convention in international forums
A thematic session led by France focused on the promotion of transparency and public participation in international forums dealing with environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context and trade; and on the issue of balanced and equitable participation and different modalities for engaging stakeholders in international decision-making.
On the topic of environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context, Croatia shared its efforts in promoting transparency and public participation in transboundary water management under the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River and the International Sava River Basin Commission. A comprehensive overview of rules and practices covering public participation in the work under the UNECE Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention) was also presented. The Guidelines for Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment in the Lower Mekong River Basin, particularly steps regulating transboundary consultations, public participation and dissemination of information, served as a good example in this field. A number of challenges and recommendations identified by civil society focused specifically on promoting the Convention’s principles in climate-, biodiversity- and nuclear- related transboundary decision-making.
Representatives of Norway, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Environmental Bureau/European ECO Forum presented experiences on the international trade-related decision-making in the context of applying principles of the Aarhus Convention. Positive developments in this regard were highlighted through the establishment of the Stakeholder Reference Group for the Agreement on the European Economic Area in Norway and WTO efforts to increase transparency and public participation through a Public Forum, stakeholder outreach and training, and an advisory group for civil society and business, among others. Several suggestions for the way forward were proposed by non-governmental organizations including application of the Convention’s principles throughout the United Nations system and WTO, supporting the involvement of NGOs by Governments in developing their positions on trade and systematically building capacity at national level.
Discussions on the issue of the balanced and equitable participation and different modalities for engaging stakeholders in international decision-making highlighted the Ninth “Environment for Europe” Ministerial Conference (Nicosia, 5-7 October 2022), hosted by Cyprus, as exemplary for engaging various stakeholder groups and providing equal opportunities for participation as well as ensuring that the information is shared extensively and in a timely manner. The MAP data management policy aimed at providing timely and free availability of all data, and the Code of Conduct for MAP Partners which regulates the responsibilities of civil society cooperation and partnership, were showcased as good practices.
Article 15 of the Almaty Guidelines developed under the Convention was highlighted by NGOs as a key basis for ensuring representation of diverse constituencies, underscoring such critical challenges as existing inequality in access to international forums because of visa and logistical issues and undue economic or political influence. A child environmental defender emphasized challenges faced by youth in exercising their environmental rights, such as being excluded from the negotiation space, and suggested that national delegations should also consult youth and children and involve them in international processes. Norway’s engagement of youth in its delegation to the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was noted as a successful example.
The Working Group further urged Parties to increase their efforts to avoid the exercise of undue economic or political influence, and facilitate the participation of those constituencies that are most directly affected and might not have the means for participation in these processes. The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples was highlighted as a good practice in this area.
Participants also proposed the continued cooperation between activities under the Aarhus Convention and the Escazú Agreement.