New United Nations’ law guarantees access to environmental information

Armenia and Estonia’s ratification of the Aarhus Convention brings a law, described by Kofi Annan as “the most ambitious venture in the area of ‘environmental democracy’ so far undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations,” into force.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations also said that “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,” Annan continued.

Following Armenia and Estonia’s ratification of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, as the sixteenth and seventeenth nations to incorporate the legislation into law, the Convention will come into effect on 30 October. The Convention, negotiated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as part of its pan-European environmental legal framework and intended to lift the veil of environmental secrecy and strengthen citizens’ environmental rights, required ratification by a minimum of 16 nations.

UNECE says that recent ozone peaks have again highlighted the need for people to have timely information about the environment so that they can take precautions and keep vulnerable children indoors, for instance. The Aarhus Convention aims to ensure that everyone has access to this type of information and to prevent Governments from covering up environmental disasters such as was the case with the denials and confusion that followed the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The Convention also gives ordinary citizens a voice in any decision-making that affects their environment, such as the situation of toxic waste dumps, and is also intended to ensure that public authorities and polluters that break the rules can be challenged in court either by individuals or by non-governmental organisations. Its application is expected to be especially significant in many former Communist states of Europe and Central Asia, which have been among those ratifying, as many have traditionally had, and some continue to have, notoriously lax environmental reporting standards and official cover-ups over polluting incidents.

“The Convention is not only a powerful weapon in the struggle to protect the environment but also a tool for democracy,” commented the Secretary to the Convention, Jeremy Wates. “Especially in countries which have recently introduced democratic systems, it is of crucial importance to establish principles of transparency, accountability and involvement of civil society to ensure stability and security.”

However, UNECE says that richer western countries are also putting the final touches to legislation to comply with the Convention and will be on board by the time the Parties hold their first meeting, expected in autumn 2002. Until now, Denmark and Italy are the only such nations to have ratified, but the European Union has also vowed to apply the Convention to its institutions.

The UN says that the Convention’s entry into force could prove to be an important input to the so-called Rio + 10 Conference in Johannesburg in 2002, with Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggesting that the Rio + 10 Conference would be “a timely occasion to examine the relevance of the Aarhus Convention as a possible model for strengthening the application of principle 10 [of the Rio Declaration] in other regions of the world,” – to date, only European and other former Soviet states have Central Asian nations have ratified.

The Convention was adopted on 25th June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus at the Fourth Ministerial Conference in the ‘Environment for Europe’ process, and is a first in linking environmental and human rights. Other European nations to have approved the Convention into law are: Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine, while in Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have ratified the Convention.

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