Aarhus Convention Process
FULL NAME: The Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters
ISSUES: Public right to know, right to participate in environmental decision-making, right to justice in environmental matters. It links environment right and human rights.
GOALS: Enhancing government accountability, transparency, and responsiveness. Assisting civil society participation & helping to create participatory democracy for sustainable development in Europe.
PARTICIPATING STAKEHOLDERS: UN ECE ( forum of 55 countries of North America, western, central and eastern Europe, and Central Asia), bodies involved in ‘Environment for Europe’ process (framework bringing together environment ministers, institutions and organisations, including citizens groups involved in environmental protection) working one of the main, other relevant international organisations, environmental NGOs, other NGOs
TIME FRAME: Full preparatory process culminating in adoption at the Fourth Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” in Aarhus, Denmark, 25th June 1998, ongoing time frame to implement.
MSP CONTACT DETAILS; PUBLICATIONS; URL: Official process UN ECE; www.unece.org
“The Aarhus Convention is a new kind of environmental agreement. It links environmental right and human rights. It acknowledges that we owe an obligation to future generations. It establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders. It links government accountability and environmental protection. It focuses on the interactions between the public and public authorities in a democratic context and it is forging a new process for public participation in the negotiation and implementation of international agreements” (UN ECE 2000).
Type: Policy-making. Implementation is now happening at the national level.
Level: Although legalities will only apply within the UN ECE region, it has global implications and potentially could serve as a framework for strengthening citizens’ environmental rights. It has been described by Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN as 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.”
Designing the MSP
It evolved partly as a result of it being one of first major programmes to significantly involve NGOs at that stage. Done by UNECE – 3 staff. NGOs provided process advice, too.
The Governmental body, the Committee on Environmental Policy, established a Working Group for the preparation of the Convention (January 1996) and also formed a "Friends of the Secretariat” group to assist the process, based upon the Sofia Guidelines (see below).
Identifying the issues to be addressed in an MSP
Issues were concerned with the development of the Aarhus Convention, an idea that emerged from the ‘Environment for Europe’ process (which already included the public). The Convention has provoked interest when compared to other environment conventions because it focuses on the processes by which environmental decisions are made. The emphasis on process rather than on outcome provides an innovative model of multi-lateral policy making. Specific issues flagged up as requiring further attention under the auspices of the Convention are: genetically modified organisms (GMOs); development of pollution registers; new forms of information, including electronic, and compliance issues.
Identifying relevant stakeholders
Questions remain over whether there was any real attempt to identify relevant stakeholders. NGOs were invited to participate and went on to play a central – and unprecedented role in negotiations drafting the Convention itself. This raises questions about role of NGOs as opposed to the general public as opposed to broader voluntary sector. But the Convention is definitely an MSP as some people were invited to participate e.g. major environmental NGOs, and law specialists.
The UNECE process was well established – with a history of NGO involvement, eg parallel forums at Sophia and Lucerne meetings and record of involving NGOs from Eastern Europe and NIS. There was a good base for the Aarhus process. Timing was interesting, too, as UNECE were involving Eastern Europeans at a time when people were talking about engaging civil society. One of the problems was that it was clearly a Ministerial ‘Environment for Europe’ conference – so there was a big emphasis on environment groups, less on social or economic development side, yet Aarhus covers these broader interests.
Identifying MSP participants
The Convention process differed from other official processes as NGOs assumed the practical status of full and equal partners. An expert group of NGOs were involved & then a major strategy planning meeting attended by 100 NGOs, but dominated by a handful of Western NGOs with a very clear agenda. They dominated but could justify this by saying that the smaller organisations lacked the capacity. It is also questionable as to how how far the process went beyond governments and NGOs. It is unclear what discussions did UNECE have with business? There was academic involvement; the lawyers/academics were mostly on the side of the NGOs.
Setting the goals of an MSP
Aarhus Convention involves a long-term goal. The whole Environment for Europe process aims to strengthen environmental institutions, legislation etc. Aarhus was just the development of a convention. There is a question over how much consensus building actually took place although there was plenty of dialogue. The question now is how much implementation there will be. The Aarhus Convention is not yet ratified by enough countries for it to come into force law (39 countries and the European Community have signed it). The original goal was for the Convention to come into force by the end of 2000.
The elite of the NGOs did have opportunities to check back with their constituencies, consult electronically via list servers etc.
Setting the agenda
There was a strong preparatory process, far stronger than anything in Europe up until that time which in its way was groundbreaking. Also notable was the fact that during the Ministerial Conference, the NGOs had an afternoon where they set the agenda, booked the speakers etc. It was an important symbolic moment - ministers sitting down and talking on an NGO agenda.
Setting the time-table
Timetable defined by setting the Aarhus meeting, the convention was to be discussed there so all the preparatory stuff had to be completed by then. Two years of negotiations with inputs from countries and NGOs throughout the UN ECE region.
The preparatory process included a large strategy meeting and some newsletters. It was mostly small group work which, considering it was a fairly arcane area of policy making, is not surprising. The convention is now completed. The communication was conducted mostly in small groups and people involved in these.
Small group discussions were facilitated.
Power gaps: It was a Government process with NGO involvement. So not a truly diverse MSP but still highly relevant in terms of NGO participation.
Power gaps did exist but because the process was about the politics of participation, the process would have benefited from more discussion about the process itself than there was. The situation was dominated by a small group of NGOs working within a tight time frame. Although there was time for reflection in between meetings, the process was all heading towards one particular point in time.
Decision-making process: procedures of agreement
As a policymaking process, implementation is now happening at a national level, with some monitoring and feedback to the international level – e.g. Dubrovnik Review conference (July 2000) in which ministers and NGOs took part. The UK Government has held a workshop on national and local implementation. NGOs are expected to play a major role in implementation processes.
Closing the MSP
The process won’t conclude for a long while yet. For example, the UK has only just (November 2000) given Royal Assent to its Freedom of Information Act which “directly supports sustainable development by providing enhanced access to information held by public authorities about their responsibilities and activities. This will be used to produce a culture of greater openness so that decisions taken are more transparent and, as a consequence, public authorities are more accountable for their actions.” (DETR 2001). This is an ongoing issue for the UK.
Closing the process: When it does close there will be a need for ongoing monitoring. Given the crisis in implementation in so many conventions, there is a lot of NGO scepticism over how much difference this can really make. [NGO comment: It will probably, ultimately, need to be challenged in the courts. Hardly an example of good MSP practice!]
Structures / institutions of the MSP
Secretariat – the UNECE is theoretically the facilitating body. The European Eco Forum (a coalition of environmental NGOs from across the UNECE region) co-ordinated the NGO response.
It was a government process with NGOs there to some extent on sufferance, but recognising this was their chance. The whole process changed massively – and is still going on - but the main body of work happened before the Aarhus conference.
There were huge amounts of documentation. Country reports co-ordinated by the REC (Regional Environment Center for Central and Eastern Europe), small work groups reports, etc. An Implementation Guide was published by the UN in 2000.
Relating to not-participating stakeholders
Many stakeholders still don’t know about it, especially if you define stakeholders as anyone who is going to be affected by it, for example, any major developer putting in a planning application will, once the Convention is in force, have to provide a lot more information to the public in a way that didn’t necessarily hasn’t happened before.
Post-Aarhus, European environmental citizens’ organisations are calling for a Pan-European campaign for transparency and participation to ensure that the Aarhus Convention and the UN ECE Guidelines on Access to Environmental Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making, endorsed in Sofia (October 1995) by European Environment Ministers, are fully implemented.
[NGO comment: The process would have benefited from more private sector involvement. But one reason that this process didn’t get wrecked was that the private sector didn’t really pay it much attention.]
Relating to the general public
There is a lot of information available as the Internet was widely used by stakeholders. However, very little information is of relevance to the general public although the follow up conference in 1999 tried to do that. It is now an information exercise and thus up to national governments.
[For example, the UK DETR position is that as an agency they do not engage in specific MSPs, instead it undertakes very general public consultation exercises in response to new proposals. (It was suggested that the Environment Agency, working at a lower level might do more innovative work).]
In its latest Annual Report reviewing progress towards sustainable development, the UK Government refers to the Aarhus Convention as “strengthening the existing public access regime for environmental information and making it more liberal and more responsive.” The Report goes on to state that the Government “is committed to improving public access to environmental information….New Regulations to bring the access regime up to this more demanding standard will be laid in most parts of the UK in 2001, well ahead of European Community legislation (DETR 2001).
Linkage into official decision-making process
The MSP was linked to the official decision-making process of developing a UN ECE Regional Convention.
NGOs received funding from national governments (not all).
[ information gathered as of 16 February 2001 ]