The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters is a new law aimed at lifting the veil of environmental secrecy and strengthening citizens'' environmental rights. Some 17 countries have ratified the convention, and while the UK government has backed the agreement it has failed to ratify it so far.
That''s not good enough for Friends of the Earth (FOE). FOE is calling on the UK government to ratify the convention as soon as possible.
"The UK still has a long way to go to ensure that its citizens have a proper voice in environmental decision-making and access to environmental information," said Mary Taylor, information campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "Ratifying the Aarhus Convention must be the next step. This treaty will help ensure that the public''s environmental rights are properly protected, and stop those that wreck our planet and damage our health hiding behind a veil of secrecy."
The Aarhus Convention was negotiated by the countries in the UN Economic Commission for Europe area. Some of the goals of the convention include:
- Preventing governments from covering up environmental disasters. This should prevent a repetition of the denials and confusion that followed the 1986 Chernobyl disaster;
- Giving ordinary citizens a voice in any decision-making that affects their environment, such as the siting of toxic waste dumps;
- Ensuring that public authorities and polluters that break the rules can be challenged in court by individuals or non-governmental organizations.
Michael Meacher, minister of State for the Environment for the UK said, "It is clear that the convention is an important instrument which does as much for human rights as it does for creating a framework for achieving sustainable development. It deserves our strong support."
He added that "the real challenge though is to avoid a gap between the words of the convention and the day-to-day practice on the ground. To provide insurance against this, I believe that we need an effective compliance mechanism for the convention."
FOE notes that ratification of the convention could remove uncertainty about environmental information held by privatized companies and make it easier to obtain economic analyses and cost-benefit studies used in decision-making.
In an important legal case concerning access to environmental information, the UK government is currently being taken to court by Aventis Cropscience UK. FOE plans to participate in the legal proceedings. Aventis manufactures Liberty Link, a pesticide containing glufosinate ammonium, which is used in field trials on their own strains of GM crops.
Aventis brought proceedings in an attempt to prevent the GUK government from disclosing documents to FOE that contain information about the effects of Liberty Link on the environment. The main basis of Aventis'' claim is that such information is commercially confidential. According to FOE, the Aarhus Convention should tighten up the loophole which allows a company to claim "commercial confidentiality" in order to keep information secret.
by Sandy Smith