Public involvement in decision-making underpins the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 25 years since the adoption of a ground-breaking global treaty known as the Aarhus Convention – unparalleled in its success in putting environmental democracy into action – this matters more than ever, urges the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
“Faced with the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, pollution and shrinking democratic space in many countries – including rising threats to and criminalization of environmental defenders –, we need more than ever to ensure public access to information, participation and justice in environmental decision making. By joining the Aarhus Convention and fulfilling its obligations, all United Nations Member States can demonstrate their commitment to environmental rights, transparency and accountability, and the public’s crucial role in protecting our shared, sustainable future”, stated UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova.
The Aarhus Convention – or to give its full name the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters –, adopted in the Danish city of Aarhus on 25 June 1998, is a unique agreement that sets out legal obligations linking human rights and the environment for its 47 Parties. These include the European Union and all its member countries, the vast majority of countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, all of the countries in the Caucasus and South-Eastern and Northern Europe, and Guinea-Bissau following its accession in 2023. All UN Member States can join the Convention.
The Aarhus Convention was the first international treaty to recognize the rights of both present and future generations to an environment adequate to their health and well-being. The establishment in 2021 of the world’s first rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders and the 2022 election of Michel Forst as Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders for that purpose were further key milestones in upholding environmental rights.
The Aarhus Convention’s success inspired the adoption in 2018 of the Escazú Agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A proven mechanism to support States’ compliance
The Compliance Committee has a number of innovative features. It is made up of independent legal experts, who serve in a personal capacity and do not represent the countries of which they are nationals. Environmental NGOs can, together with Parties and Signatories to the Convention, nominate candidates for election to the Committee. Very importantly, members of the public can bring cases to the Compliance Committee directly.
Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee Chair Ms. Áine Ryall stated that “the Aarhus rights underpin the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary, implementation of the Convention is more important now than ever. The climate and biodiversity crisis, the precarious position of environmental defenders and the erosion of civic space more generally, confirm the vital role of the Aarhus rights to protect environmental democracy. The Compliance Committee will continue to lead the way to support implementation and stands ready to meet the many challenges that lie ahead.”
A key tool for the public and NGOs to hold governments accountable
200 communications from the public have been submitted since the election of the first Compliance Committee in 2002, demonstrating strong public engagement with the Aarhus Convention. This accounts for 94% of all cases received by the Committee.
The Aarhus Convention is a powerful tool for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which account for some 60% of communications brought to the Compliance Committee, based on the last inter-sessional reporting exercise. Individuals or groups of individuals also actively use this mechanism, accounting for 28% of communications.
Ms. Summer Kern of Justice and Environment, who has represented communicants in multiple cases before the Committee, described the Committee´s findings and recommendations as “vital to achieve compliance”, and in the efforts to address remaining problems. “Throughout, the Committee has been meticulous and tailored its findings, reflecting a deep understanding of the context of a given Party´s legal system, whilst always being mindful of creating a solid body of broader and consistent jurisprudence, and confronting potentially tricky issues that might arise when its interpretations of the Convention are applied in other Parties, who have different legal, practical, and historical contexts,” she added.
Public participation is the focus of the largest share of allegations of non-compliance in cases received by the Committee (43%), followed by access to justice (37%) and access to information (14%).
These three areas are also the most common area of non-compliance in the Committee’s findings and recommendations.
Issues with compliance with the Convention’s provisions addressed by the Committee cover a wide range of sectors, with energy accounting for the largest share (almost one third of cases), followed by spatial planning (21%) and transport and infrastructure (19%). Forestry, mining, agriculture, fishery, hunting, water and waste are also among sectors covered, with 34% of cases covering more than one sector, demonstrating the Convention’s value as a means to find solutions to complex, multisectoral environmental issues.
The Committee has adopted 96 findings concerning the compliance of Parties to the Convention to date (92 communications, 2 submissions, 2 requests from the Meeting of Parties (MOP)).
Through its work, the Committee has assisted many Parties to remedy their non-compliance with the Convention. To give just a few examples:
The EU amended its legal framework to enable environmental NGOs and the public to challenge acts and omissions of EU institutions which contravene EU law relating to the environment.
Ukraine adopted a law on environmental impact assessment providing for public participation in environmental decision making.
Germany amended its legislation on standing for environmental NGOs.
Slovakia amended its law so that nuclear-related environmental information can no longer be unconditionally declared confidential with no possibility of disclosure.
The Republic of Moldova trained its officials to ensure access to environmental information regarding contracts for the sale of forest land.
Croatia amended its law to ensure a transparent framework for public participation for municipal waste management plans.
Kazakhstan examined its legislation and case law, with public involvement, to ensure adequate and effective remedies in the course of judicial review.
Denmark amended its law to reduce court fees for NGOs to appeal.
35 Parties to the Convention have been subject to compliance review since the Compliance Committee started to receive cases in 2004. Of these, the Compliance Committee is currently following up with 21 Parties to assist them to come into compliance as soon as possible.
Note to editors:
According to the Convention (Article 15), Parties are required to establish “arrangements of a non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative nature for reviewing compliance”.
The compliance mechanism may be triggered in five ways:
(1) a Party may make a submission about compliance by another Party;
(2) a Party may make a submission concerning its own compliance;
(3) the secretariat may make a referral to the Committee;
(4) members of the public may make communications concerning a Party's compliance with the convention.
(5) The Meeting of the Parties may request the Committee to examine a Party’s compliance with the Convention
After deliberating on a case, the Committee adopts findings, which are thereafter transmitted to the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention for its endorsement.
If the Committee finds a Party to be in non-compliance, the Meeting of the Parties may adopt a decision concerning that Party’s compliance, including recommendations that the Party concerned must meet to come into compliance. The Committee follows up with the Party concerned regarding its progress to implement the recommendations and reports back to the Meeting of the Parties on the progress made.