Access to environmental information
The Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters is the somewhat lengthy title given to a potentially powerful new treaty drawn up by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
The Convention was adopted and signed in Århus, Denmark, on the 24th June 1998 and will enter into force once the sixteenth instrument of ratification has been deposited. To date, the Convention has been signed by 39 countries plus the European Union. The Republic of Moldava has already ratified the treaty and over 20 other countries have pledged to ratify by the end of the year 2000.
As a unique international instrument the Convention has set minimum standards which are intended to provide access to information, public participation and access to justice to people regardless of their nationality, citizenship or domicile.
The use of the word environmental is defined broadly. It covers biological diversity, including genetically modified organisms, the state of human health and safety and conditions of human life, as well as the state of the environment (air, soil, water, and so on). The definition also covers economic analyses and assumptions used in environmental decision-making.
The Convention grants the right that a person or organization seeking access does not have to state any specific interest or reason for the request, and that the request should be answered within one month. If the public authority refuses access on the basis of one of the exemptions within the Convention, reasons for this should be stated to enable the applicant to appeal the decision.
There are three main pillars that form the Convention: access to information; public participation; and access to justice.
Access to information: In a democracy people have the right to know and should be provided with easy access to information. It is necessary to raise public awareness and to ensure the effective participation of the public in matters of concern to them. For many years, information on the state of the environment or the effects of certain activities on it were clouded in secrecy. Today, the Convention calls on all the Parties to remove that veil and give clear information to the public.
Not only does the public have the right to environmental information upon request. Public authorities also have an obligation to collect and disseminate environmental information, and make it widely available on the Internet, for instance. The Convention also includes an obligation to establish pollutant release and transfer registers and inventories, as already exist in, for example, the United States, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Public participation: Public participation helps make decision makers more accountable and environmental decision-making more transparent. In the past, it has often been denied or avoided in the interests of economic, political and sometimes social policies. Today, the Convention calls on all the Parties to provide for public participation and thus better integrate environmental considerations in governmental decision-making. It is widely recognized that public participation in decision-making processes makes for better decisions and facilitates their application. Individuals should be given the opportunity to express their concerns and opinions and public authorities should take due account of these.
The Convention lists specific activities for which public participation is obligatory. The list includes: the energy sector, metal production, the mineral industry, the chemical industry, waste management, major waster-water treatment plants and other water management constructions, poultry- and pig-rearing installations and a range of other activities. An important principle is that public participation should take place at an early stage when options are still open and the public can really make a difference.
Access to justice: For access to information and public participation in decision-making to be effective, it is necessary to ensure recourse to administrative or judicial proceedings. Only with such a review mechanism can the decisions of the authorities be challenged and effective implementation of the Convention be ensured. All Parties are therefore required to establish easy and free access to a review procedure before a court or another independent or impartial body.
By referring to justice, the Convention binds the Parties to the idea that there are overriding general principles of law and basic rights that need to be reflected in the Convention and taken into account in its application. Recognizing the right of the public to appeal to higher authorities and the independent courts ensures that the provisions of the Convention are implemented evenly, thoroughly and fairly.
The Convention is still in its infancy and the framework it establishes will evolve over time depending on how it is interpreted and implemented by the Parties. Yet one thing is already clear; the Convention is a unique instrument with a vast potential in that it spells out the States obligations to the public at large, thereby ensuring that each and everyone of us can help protect the environment for the benefit of future generations.
For more information about the Convention or to obtain copies of the booklet The UN/ECE in Your Daily Life: All Involved for a Better Environment, on which this article is based, contact Jerzy Jendroska at the UN/ECE Information Office, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland. Fax: 41-22-9070107. Email: email@example.com. Web: www.unece.org/ env/europe/ppconven.htm.