Russia-wide citizens’ campaign calls on Moscow to join the UN’s Aarhus Convention this year

ingressimage_factory_smokestacks.jpg Photo: Source: UNESE

The Aarhus Convention – officially, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters – was signed fifteen years ago, on June 25, 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus.

That year, the document was signed by 38 countries (as of April 2013, 46 nations are parties to the convention). Russia took active part in discussing the text of the document, but did not sign it. Of the former Soviet Union republics now forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia and Uzbekistan remain the only two nations that are not Aarhus signatories.

By noon Moscow time on June 25, cities across half a dozen Russian regions had put their pins on the map of a nationwide action to raise awareness of this glaring gap in Russia’s environmental policy – with a conference and an opinion poll on the Aarhus Convention conducted in Novosibirsk, in Southwestern Siberia, a press conference and a discussion on a local radio station taking place in Volgograd, in the south of European Russia, and publications appearing in the media of Ryazan and Nizhny Novgorod, in Central European Russia.

Other events were organized in Orenburg, in the southern Urals, and Arkhangelsk, across the country in Russia’s north. Ecological activists in Murmansk, on the far northern Kola Peninsula, were arranging a panel meeting in the evening to provide information and bring focus on the issue. The Russian capital, Moscow, participated as well as the country’s second largest city St. Petersburg, where Bellona has been a driving force for the campaign.

The idea was born last April at a conference on public participation in environmentally significant decision-making. Held by Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, the conference gathered over 80 ecologists from over a dozen Russian cities.   

 “The Aarhus Convention is a unique mechanism that regulates the interaction between the public and bodies of government, so for us, for ecological activists, for civil activists, this mechanism is very important,” said Nina Popravko, legal counsel with ERC Bellona and one of the campaign’s vocal initiators.

The convention guarantees that citizens of the participating country can obtain ecological information – such as data on emissions released by industrial sites, Popravko explained. It also obligates the government to take public opinion into account when planning potentially ecologically harmful activities and to provide citizens with opportunity to seek legal redress if their environmental rights are violated.

According to Popravko, aside from helping to improve the ecological situation, the convention would also offer Russia ways avoid the not-so-infrequent explosive conflicts that see local populations pitted desperately against potentially ecologically detrimental businesses.

Hot disputes such as a stand-off over the development of a copper and nickel deposit in Voronezh Region, in Central European Russia, could be resolved early on if the public could be involved in making crucial decisions at the very start of an industrial project.

“Joining the convention will […] reduce the high social and economic  tensions that have been increasingly noticeable in society,” said Popravko.

A signature-collecting campaign (in Russian) is in progress at Change.Org, the global platform for citizens’ initiatives, under a petition to the Russian government.

Petition for change

Petitioners call on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergei Donskoi to join the Aarhus Convention this year, bring Russia’s legislation into accord with this international convention, and “provide legislative assurance to the citizens’ right to access to ecological information, guaranteed provision of information at an early stage, and to the development of mechanisms of taking into account the proposals and recommendations expressed by the public during public discussions.” 

The petition, authored by Popravko, has been signed by a number of high profile Russian ecological organizations – from Sakhalin in the Far East to Krasnodar on the Black Sea – and hundreds of Russian citizens.

Commenting on the reasons for signing the petition, they write about rampant environmental violations and corruption in the government, chaotic development in high-density city neighborhoods that disregards urban residents’ need for green areas, or unsanctioned disposal of wastes.

“Only appealing to international norms leaves any possibility lately for civilized resolution of problems,” one petitioner, from St. Petersburg, writes on Change.Org.  

“I don’t want for Siberia and its destiny to be decided by don’t-care-what-happens-after-us bureaucrats,” writes another, from Krasnoyarsk.

A petitioner from Sosnovy Bor explains: “I don’t want decisions impacting the environment around me and my loved ones to be made by someone living far from where I live, behind my back, without my knowing.”

Sosnovy Bor is a town near St. Petersburg where new reactors are being built for Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant 2, and a radioactive waste repository is planned – one of a number slated for construction across the country.

This, according to Popravko, is an issue of serious concern, since, though it may impact the nearby multi-million city of St. Petersburg, the project has not been made available for discussion by St. Petersburg residents.

The same is true for the large urban center of Krasnoyarsk and the nearby Zheleznogorsk, another nuclear town that is a future home for a radioactive waste repository.

Popravko says the public will have its say in such matters if Russia adopts the Aarhus Convention, which defines “concerned public” as any individual or legal entity whose rights are in some way affected by a project or a decision. In effect, all citizens of the Russian Federation would be entitled to being included in these decisions, she said.

“I share completely the principles of the convention. I consider it to be most important for civil society as a whole and for environmentalists in particular,” reads a comment by a petitioner from Arkhangelsk.

And this laconic, if despairing, cry from the heart from Solnechnogorsk: “Because it’s becoming impossible to live.”

Two years of delays

In June 2011 – two years ago – Prime Minister Medvedev, at the time Russia’s president, instructed his government to look into the issue of joining the Aarhus Convention. It was discussed again at a March 2012 session of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights dedicated to ecological safety and environmental protection – and, as the meeting’s results were summed up, was again included on a list of the president’s instructions.

As the petition on Change.Org points out, neither of those instructions were fulfilled in the timeframes set.

On April 30 last year, the president approved a document outlining the basic principles of the state ecological development policy for Russia for the period until 2030. A plan of measures to implement the policy as set out in that document was adopted by the government in December that year and included joining the convention in 2013.

This year, on January 22, former Prime Minister and now President Putin had a working meeting with the natural resources and environment minister Donskoi, where the minister reported that “continuation of adoption of documents” was part of the work under way:

“[…] In point of fact, we have a rather large package [of documents] on which we are currently working: […] ratification of international agreements: access to ecological information and environmental impact assessment.”

The “international agreements” the minister was referring to were apparently the 1998 Aarhus Convention and the other important convention Russia has signed but is yet to ratify: the 1991 Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, where signatory nations have agreed to hold consultations with their neighbors on projects that may have potentially harmful cross-border impacts.

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The ministry’s response

On June 5 came a reply to Popravko’s inquiry to the natural resources ministry on the progress of following up on President Medvedev’s 2011 instructions. The letter said not all government bodies were ready to support Russian membership in the Aarhus treaty.

In March 2013, the letter said, the ministry, jointly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had “presented their proposals (bill) on joining the Aarhus Convention to the government.”

“Preparations and coordination of the proposals with all concerned bodies of government of the Russian Federation (83 constituent entities of the Russian Federation, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Commercial Court of the Russian Federation, 22 bodies of federal executive power), as well as obtaining expert evaluations, conducting public discussions, collecting comments and suggestions,” have taken over a year, taking into consideration that the comments made were again distributed for approval by all concerned parties, the letter reads.

“Not all concerned parties expressed their support to joining the Aarhus Convention,” the letter concluded. “At the moment, the argumentation of the supporters and opponents of the proposed bill is being carefully studied in order to work out further steps on the matter in question.” 

Environmentalists are worried this may mean more delays.

As Popravko points out, it is not clear from the letter who exactly opposes the adoption of the Aarhus Convention, or why.

“We have sent another inquiry asking to provide information on which entities are against [signing the convention], what kind of arguments they have against it, their motives […],” Popravko said at a press conference held at ERC Bellona on Tuesday. 

She was joined at the press conference by Andrei Ozharovsky, Bellona’s nuclear expert and regular author of Bellona.Ru, and Tatyana Artyomova, a journalist with the magazine Posev and co-chairman of the Association of Ecological Journalists of St. Petersburg.

The resistance, they said, is speculated to be coming, among other quarters, from the Supreme Court, which might fear getting snowed in under reams of newly filed lawsuits from citizens encouraged to defend their ecological rights, or regions where a large industrial project is in planning and the locals, armed with the convention’s provisions, could have more ammunition to fight it. 

But, said Artyomova, neither the Supreme Court of Belarus nor those of other signatory countries have “perished under the weight of lawsuits following joining the convention, so arguably, the Russian Supreme Court, can manage, too.”

In three months, Ozharovsky said, ecologists have been able to join their forces and do something to propel the idea of joining the convention forward. “I hope these actions continue, that we can work efficiently further and the government starts a dialogue with us,” so we can understand why progress is stalling, Ozharovsky said.

A barrier to persecution

But even as the federal government is dragging its heels, Russian regions, fifteen years on, seem to be paying more attention.

Speaking of the media’s interest in giving coverage to Tuesday’s nationwide action, Artyomova said it was thanks to the veteran activists in regional centers – just as much a “cradle” of the Russian ecological movement as the capital cities Moscow and St. Petersburg – that both the press and the regional authorities have started to treat the subject with “a fair degree of thoughtfulness and responsibility.”

She said one of the reasons to stand behind the Aarhus Convention is that it also shelters those seeking to exercise their ecological rights by ensuring that “this person or organization will not be subjected to punishment or persecution.”

It could be understood, to an extent, as a “corporate interest’ on the part of ecologists and their organizations, she said.

“But, I believe, this is very justified, historically, as today, too, there are many names of ecological activists […] who are subjected to harassment precisely because [of their work],” Artyomova said, recalling the cases of Alexander Nikitin, Igor Sutyagin, Grigory Pasko, and, more recently, Suren Ghazaryan, among others. “And we believe that joining the Aarhus Convention will put if not an end, then at least a barrier of sorts, on which we count a lot.” 

Artyomova, who was in Aarhus with a group of journalists from Europe and former Soviet states at the time the convention was being adopted, said the opposition that may have prevented Russia’s signing the convention then was ascribed in conversations to those who, whether acting in the call of duty, or for commercial or other interests, or even out of sheer conviction, were bound by a commitment to secrecy.

“[…] At an evening meeting with our Russian delegation, we heard a phrase that the possible reason […] was that special services that were working [… ] and sometimes, as it seems to us, not so much to the country’s benefit as maybe to its detriment, too, […] had been able to exert noticeable influence,” Artyomova said. “We believe that now this process will be taking place differently.”

According to Ozharovsky, if Moscow is concerned about how Russian membership may affect issues of national security or defense, it shouldn’t be: In that regard, the Aarhus Convention is even weaker than Russia’s own law, as it only covers information about emissions or pollutant discharges, and the same provisions are codified in Russia. Any legislative adjustments Russia would have to carry out to adopt the convention’s rules are minimal.

Aarhus is not a threat to any protected commercial information, either, Ozharovsky said: Only “dishonest businesses” that use corruption schemes to get permissions for potentially harmful activities will be forced to play by the rules. 

Nothing scary about it

Speaking about the experience of Aarhus membership in other former Soviet states, Ozharovsky said “there’s nothing scary about it.”

“I won’t say it’s all smooth ride,” Ozharovsky said, “but no catastrophes are happening either.”

Ozharovsky spoke of his experience being jailed in Belarus – an Aarhus signatory – following participation in public hearings on Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant, under construction there. The Belarusian public then filed a complaint over his detention with the Aarhus Compliance Committee. But the committee’s decisions are not court decisions, Ozharovsky said, and even Belarus, with its “minimum of respect for human rights, tolerates” its participation in the convention.

“This is an avenue for solving problems, not for punishing the guilty,” Ozharovsky said.

With Aarhus serving as a mediating mechanism, conflicts do not have to be run into an emotional dead end, as sometimes happens in Russia.

All too often, Ozharovsky said, Russian citizens are invited to discussion when the principal decision is already made: The project has been developed, the money invested, and an environmental impact assessment report commissioned and written where, as a rule, negative effects are concealed and benefits highlighted. This is what is then presented at a public hearing, and even if a majority votes the project down, it is still carried on further.

The Aarhus Convention will help shift public involvement to an earlier stage, offering other tools to resist ecologically hazardous projects than an open conflict or protest rallies – a discussion at the level of experts and documents and an international authority to file complaints with.

Ecological violations are not unique to Russia. Ozharovsky called the Aarhus Convention “a club of countries agreeing: Let’s get together and do this thing so that the public of each country, within this country, could have better rights to prevent implementation of projects that may harm the living and future generations.”

But Russia should understand that now “observing minimal ecological standards, including with regard to ecological human rights is a globally established practice,” Ozharovsky said. If we violate these standards, then “such a country looks like a savage on the global arena.” 

Maria Kaminskaya