International Right-to-Know Law In Effect

The Aarhus Convention is being called "the most ambitious venture in environmental democracy" undertaken by the United Nations.

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Aarhus is a city in Denmark and the name of a new international law which the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes as "the most ambitious venture in environmental democracy undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations."

The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters &endash known as the Aarhus Convention after the Danish city where it was adopted in June 1998 &endash came into effect on Oct. 31. It seeks to strengthen the role of members of the public and environmental organizations in protecting and improving the environment for the benefit of future generations.

"Denmark finds the need for a global framework for strengthening citizens'' environmental rights more important than ever in our search for sustainable development, " said Svend Auken, Minister of Environment and Energy, Denmark, about the law.

The convention recognizes the right of citizens to information, participation and justice in environmental issues and it aims to promote greater accountability and transparency in environmental matters.

While the convention was developed as an instrument to protect the environment, it may also be seen as promoting democracy. Costas Themistocleous, Minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment for Cyprus, said the Aarhus Convention "is the first time that environment is so closely linked to human rights."

Specifically, the convention aims to:

  • Allow members of the public greater access to environmental information held by public authorities, thereby increasing the transparency and accountability of government;
  • Provide an opportunity for people to express their opinions and concerns on environmental matters and ensure that decision makers take due account of these;
  • Provide the public with access to review procedures when their rights to information and participation have been breached, and in some cases to challenge more general violations of environmental law.

For example, this means that local residents must be given a say in new road construction plans or in the siting of household-waste incinerators. Members of the public also have a right to know what state their environment is in and, in some circumstances, to sue governments or polluters that attempt to cover up environmental disasters.

"I intend to ensure that the principles of the Aarhus Convention are applied, in their words and in their spirit, in the daily practice within the [European] Community. This will take time and will require a change in behavior of many citizens and administrations, local authorities and environmental organizations," said Margot Wallstrm, European Commissioner for the Environment for the European Commission. "If our European society is an open society and wishes to remain one, we need to make the Aarhus principles part of our daily environmental policy."

To date, the convention has been ratified by 17 countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

Western European companies have been slower to ratify the convention, prompting Kaj Barlund, the director of the UNECE Environment Division, to comment that it was clear from their "warm messages of support" that western countries are working hard to be able to ratify the convention. "The delay is an indication that the convention is sufficiently progressive to prompt important improvements even in some of the most well-established western democracies," added Barlund.

"I hope that the Convention will serve as an inspiration, even beyond Europe and in other domains than the environment. We are working hard for its ratification, and until it is ratified, we will conduct ourselves as if it were already in force," said Jan Pronk, minister of Housing and Spatial Planning for The Netherlands.

by Sandy Smith

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