20 Years After Adoption of the Aarhus Convention, the Need for Environmental Democracy More Relevant Now than Ever

September 15, 2017

Budva, Montenegro – While no major substantive progress was made at the 6th  Meeting of the Parties of the Aarhus Convention (MOP) that concluded today, the biggest message from the meeting was a reaffirmation of the importance of the principles that give rise to the Convention. Twenty years after the adoption of the Convention, Aarhus continues to play critical role in protecting environmental democracy in Europe and Central Asia. The Convention guarantees that citizens have access to environmental information, the right to have their voice heard in environmental decision making, and the right to access to justice if their rights are violated – thereby empowering individuals and NGOs to influence public policies and ensure that they are able to contribute to the protection of the environment.

“Across the globe, environmental defenders risk their lives to defend their lands, rights, and communities,” says Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “In the last two years alone, more than 500 defenders have been killed, and the impunity surrounding their murders emboldens those who benefit from future attacks and intimidation. In this context, now is the time to increase ambition of the Aarhus Convention to promote human rights, environmental democracy, and good governance both domestically and globally.” Indeed, the MOP adopted several decisions related to the protection of environmental defenders from harassment and discrimination. Such protection is critical to guarantee that individuals can exercise their rights to participate in environmental policies without fear of repression or retaliation.

Much work remains to effectively enforce the Convention. The number of complaints brought before the compliance office of the Convention demonstrate that may states parties still fail to fully implement the convention.

Midweek, the MOP faced a critical moment of decision. EU institutions, unhappy with the convention’s compliance committee findings that the EU was in non-compliance regarding access to justice, seemed poised to ignore the findings of the committee – a move that could have perhaps irrevocably undermined the strength of the Aarhus Convention and its compliance mechanism on any issue going forward. Ultimately, this decision was postponed.

One important step forward was Guinea Bissau’s expression of interest to become a party. “Guinea Bissau’s interest demonstrates the importance of continuing of multinational cooperation to bolster regional processes that promote environmental democracy,” continues Duyck. “Regional processes, such as in Latin America and the Caribbean with the creation of a binding instrument on Principle 10 or through broadening the scope of the Aarhus Convention for countries in regions lacking such a process, are critical to strengthening access rights and protecting environmental defenders worldwide.”

Next spring, civil society and governments will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the entry into force of the Aarhus Convention. The discussions in Montenegro suggest several crucial paths to reinforce the role of the Convention in advancing environmental democracy. These include promoting procedural rights beyond Europe and Central Asia, guaranteeing the rapid protection of anyone threatened due to her/his engagement in defense of the environment, and ensuring that peoples’ environmental rights are not undermined by trade agreements.