I remember in 1985 when I was 19 years old and read a new Danish book called “Handbook for Bush Sneakers” (translated literally). It described how as an environmental activist you could sneak around in bushes and take samples of the sewage outlets from industrial factories and thereby determine the amount of pollution being emitted.
In many countries this handbook is no longer needed, because of the Aarhus Convention which entered into force 15 years ago (30 October). The Aarhus Convention gives citizens and civil society organizations the right to access information about pollution and environmental impacts from industrial plants and other activities. It also establishes the right to participate in decision-making that affects the environment and the right to pursue legal means if that right is not respected.
The Aarhus Convention was needed and it works. Almost daily I read press clippings about the efforts of citizens and environmental organizations which, with the Aarhus Convention in hand, fight against pollution and bad policies and for a cleaner environment. According to the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment the Aarhus Convention has become a “leading example” in implementing human rights obligations relating to the environment.
This Convention is therefore unique, and it is critically important for environmental policies and participation throughout the 46 countries that have joined. It helps to save lives from dangerous pollutants, unsafe facilities and environmental disasters. And it greatly helps policymakers to strengthen their dialogue with citizens, which in turn leads to better and more informed decisions.
The Convention’s Maastricht Declaration marks a significant step for the protection of whistle-blowers and for putting an end to harassment of environmental activists. Some countries have already taken actions to respond to this challenge. The Netherlands, for example, approved a bill on the establishment of a Whistle-blowers Centre that will provide legal protection and advice to whistle-blowers against any form of abuse. In other countries throughout the world there is still a very long way to go. A report by Global Witness in 2014 identified over 900 killings of environmentalists over the past decade. It is unacceptable and shows the importance of frameworks like the Aarhus Convention.
The full name of the Aarhus Convention is the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. Together with its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers, the Convention is the only legally binding instrument that implements Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Democracy, which has been guiding our efforts to turn environmental democracy into a daily reality.
Today the principles and practices from the Aarhus Convention are critical for implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals in areas such as climate change, water management, the protection of biodiversity, health, job creation and the eradication of poverty. And the Convention is right on target when it comes to Sustainable Development Goal 16 on transparency, accountability and good governance.
As a Dane, I feel particularly proud and honoured that the city of Aarhus is the birthplace of environmental democracy (which also means that I know how to pronounce the word Aarhus). Through the work of Governments, various partner organizations, international financial institutions, academia, civil society and some 59 “Aarhus Centres”, the word “Aarhus” has become synonymous with environmental democracy and has helped build new common standards across the Eurasian continent and beyond.
The Convention is also inspiring other regions, most notably Latin America and the Caribbean, where countries are currently finalizing a similar instrument on environmental rights. At UNECE we are doing our very best to share our experience with them to help their project become a reality. And we stand ready to help other countries and regions as well.
We will only be able to reach the Sustainable Development Goals and to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change through dialogue and cooperation between Governments, civil society, academia, industry and the public. By sharing information and engaging local communities, by protecting the environmental rights of every person and by listening to what people have to say, we can help protect the environment, increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to disasters. We can also reduce conflicts and create better and more coherent societies.
The Aarhus Convention is a very fine convention. I hope many more countries will join and that citizens and civil society will continue to use it. If so, we no longer need a handbook for bush sneakers.