Aarhus Convention

- CONVENTION ON ACCESS TO INFORMATION, PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN DECISION-MAKING AND ACCESS TO JUSTICE IN ENVIRONMENTAL MATTERS done at Aarhus, Denmark 25 June 1998

- DIRECTIVE 2003/35/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL 26 May 2003 (link)

- COUNCIL DECISION 17 February 2005 (link)

- REGULATION (EC) n°1367/2006 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL 6 September 2006 (link)

http://www.unece.org/env/pp/welcome.html

The public, main stakeholder of this change process, has an opportunity to actively promote sustainable development. That's why public authorities take upon themselves the task of optimising the potential of civil society as a whole through sensibilisation and information activities and by including the public in decisional processes.

  • Information:

The public must be informed on environmental issues. He must be able to assess the quality of the environment in which he lives and the changes endangering him. Public authorities have the duty to provide clear and complete information, possibly by means of interactive information technologies.

  • Participation:

The participation of the public in public decisional processes is the first condition for sustainable development. Environmental policies must be based on confrontation with the involved social sujects and be implemented in the form of shared strategies. A decision adopted through negotiation with those concerned and built through a high level of consent is a democratic decision which has more probabilities of being brought about in an optimal way because of the cooperation of all. Further, it is a better quality decision: the public, and especially associations interested in environmental protection or other significant subjects can offer a precious knowhow on the territory's situation, on local environmental needs and on the interests of the inhabitants.

The three pillars of the Aarhus Convention

The three pillars of environmental democracy are not only the objectives of the Convention, but first and foremost the means for the ultimate goal which is to give a contribution to the right of every individual of the present and future generations to live in an environment suited for his or her health and wellbeing. To this end the Convention asks the governments to take action in three spheres:

1. Granting the public access to environmental information

The Convention sets a difference between the right of citizens to have access to information they ask for and the duty of public authorities to publish those information. This implies that:

  • public authorities must actually possess the relevant documents
  • information must be up to date and reliable, delivered under reasonable terms and without heavy costs

Access can be denied only in certain cases (illegal or generic request, concerning a document still to be fully prepared or unavailable) or for some reasons (such as protection of a secret on public authorities' decisions, national defense, public security, good functioning of justice, trade/industry secrets, copyright, confidentiality of the documents). Public authorities must have an active role in the publication of information: this must be carried out in immediate terms and ensured through the creation of automated information webs.

2. Promoting participation of the public in decision-making on matters concerning the environment

The Convention states the right for the interested public to participate in decision making processes regarding the authorization of certain activities, mostly in the industrial sector, where  environmental impact is significant. Participation should be granted as well in the preparation of plans, programs, policies and legal measures adopted by the public authorities. It must be possible to present remarks that will be taken into account by the authorities.

Article 6, ensuring participation in the authorisation procedure of certain specific activities is usually implemented through the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure, which includes mechanisms for the consultation of local communities.

Articles 7 and 8 of the Aahrhus convention assigning the public the right to be involved in the presentation of plans, programs, policies and legal measures adopted by public authorities are formulated in a very generic manner, and therefore require to be further developed and defined in detail. Within the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment on a transboundary level, the parties are working at the preparation of a Protocol on the “Strategic Environment Assessment” which should establish a procedure for the assessment of the impact of plans, programs,policies and legal measures could have on the environment.

As the VAS procedure requires a profile of participation and consultation of the public, the VAS Protocol appears as an appropriate means for the further implementation of articles 7 and 8 of the Aarhus Convention.

The team for the writing of this Protocol started work in May 2001, including experts of the Aarhus Convention. According to predictions it should finish by May 2003.

3. Widening the conditions for access to Justice

In case they believe their rights to access to information or participation have been violated or even just in order to report the breach of environmental regulations on the part of both public authorities or private parties, citizens will have the possibility to take legal action through administrative and judicial review procedures.