After Kremlin wrecking balls have leveled environmental legislation, the Aarhus Convention is a last, best hope

Publish date: May 16, 2013

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Charles Digges

MOSCOW – Fifteen years ago, Russian NGOs were still urging against Russia joining the Aarhus Convention because the environmental legislation of the 90s according them wide berth to receive ecological information and the right to take part in decision-making processes.

In the interceding years of the first two terms of the Administration of Vladimir Putin, and his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidential throne warm for Putin’s return to power last year, these rights have been contorted beyond recognition, leaving the Russian public disenfranchised from its environmental rights.

Public interest groups and environmental NGOs have had to change tack, and  Today, the Aarhus Convention is more essential to the Russian public than ever.

The Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in the process of adopting decisions and access to legal recourse on issues concerning the environment was adopted in 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark.

For the first time, NGOs had the same level of access as governments to the development of the Convention. The Convention’s aim is to support the right to favorable environmental conditions, access to information, participation of the public in decision making processes as well as affording it legal redress.

Each participant country in the Convention was therefore obliged to create the necessary conditions for creating and supporting clear, open and coherent structures for implementing the conditions of the Convention.

Since 1998, more than 40 countries in Western and Eastern Europe as well as Central Asia (with the exception of Uzbekistan) have signed and ratified the convention.

Russia has signed the Convention, but still has yet to ratify it, though officials repeatedly speak of how work towards ratification is still progressing.

For example, the last reference to work on the Convention’s ratification on the website of Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment is dated November 2011. The reference is in Russian, and is absent from announcements published on the site that are translated into English.

“The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment has prepared projects in accordance with federal laws, suggestions of the Ministry for ratification of the Aarhus Convention at the present moment is undergoing approval by federal executive structures,” reads the reference.

But nothing has changed since then and the ratification documents are still collecting dust where they were two years ago.

Aside from this, even Russian civil society groups in the 1900s were pushing against joining the convention because Russian legislation at the time ensured that any planned project or activity had to pass through the stages of public discussion, and all environmental information was assured to be open.

“At that time, our internal environmental legislation was harmonized, and many normative measures where more far reaching than the Convention,” said Nina Popravko, the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona’s legal advisor. “Ratification of the convention would have weakened a number of [then existent] legislative points,” she said, adding that, “fifteen years ago no one could have foreseen that Russia’s environmental legislation would be changed for the worse to the point of being unrecognizable.”

Access to information

One obligation provided under the Aarhus Convention is the guarantee of unfettered access to environmental information and correspondingly to its collection and dissemination. The observation of the Convention is insufficient to promulgate legislative rights of citizens to access to information or participation in decisions carrying environmental significance. Aspects of the Aarhus convention must legislatively define processes and concrete mechanisms, which guarantee the implementation of such rights.  

Other aspects of the convention are charged with creating an effective system, by virtue of which any citizen or public representative can request environmental information from corresponding government agencies and receive a full accounting within a reasonable time frame. Additionally, the public is not obligated to justify its interest or otherwise to explain its interest in receiving such information.

Any ministry that is part of the Aarhus Convention is obliged to furnish environmental information to inquiries from private individuals or the public.

Information and public participation

Another principle of the convention is the inclusion of the public in the process of adopting environmentally significant decisions, in the implementation of environmental policy, and in programs and plans for activity.

Adopting the convention would significantly ease the receipt of information about planned projects and activities. For example, it would not be necessary to personally travel several hundred kilometers to tiny towns and far flung regions where this or that industrial installation to review materials brought forth for public review, as is currently the very inconvenient case.

At present, companies refuse to publish these materials on their websites or send them out by mail. Interested parties must therefore personally come to the site of any potentially environmentally dangerous project to read tomes of information they are not allowed to copy or borrow, severely restricting public access to environmentally significant decisions.

Should the Convention be ratified, companies would be obligated to ensure maximum access to such information as well as effectively give notice of planned projects by using popular communications resources, official company websites, and others. Currently this demand is only nominally fulfilled: Local papers, usually ones with the lowest circulation, carry announcements, and interested parties are forced to dig them out.

Aside from this, public discussion under the Convention is not limited to discussions of only new projects, but changes in technology and production at already functioning plants and installations.

“Harmonizing Russian legislation with the norms and principles of the Aarhus Convention would facilitate wider protections of citizen’s environmental rights because there would be mechanisms to regulate the many aspects of the peoples’ environmental rights,” said Popravko.

Popravko said that in 2013, environmental organizations adopted a decision to conduct a one day action so that during this year, which has been designated by Russia as the Year of the Environment, they could draw the attention of authorities to the necessity of ratifying the international Convention.

The one day actions will take place in many regions of Russia on June 25 to coincide with the date the Aarhus Conventions was signed in 1998.