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The Aarhus Convention: public rights
In 1992, in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development adopted a declaration, known as the "Rio Declaration (WEB)", which moved forward the concept of the rights and responsibilities of countries in environmental matters.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, or the principle of access to information and participation in decisions, states the following:
"Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making procedures. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided."
The Aarhus Convention, drafted under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) (WEB), aims to put this principle into practice. The Aarhus Convention is regional in scope and covers the European continent in the broadest sense, including the countries of Central Asia. It recognises that sustainable development can only be implemented if everyone is involved. It is thus central to relations between citizens and their governments.
The general public is still relatively unfamiliar with the Aarhus Convention but it is nonetheless an essential tool for each and every one of us.
Named after the small Danish town in which it was signed, this international Convention aims to ensure that everyone has the right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being.
To achieve this, the Convention (WEB) aims to guarantee the public the right to participate in environmental decision-making.
Protecting and improving the environment are matters that affect us all, and this is something that can be achieved by giving the public the right to be involved in environmental issues.
So what does it really involve?
The Aarhus Convention grants the population a series of rights that act as a kind of "bridge" between environmental rights and human rights.
These rights concern:
- access to information (HTML) access to information,
- public participation (HTML) participation in the decision-making process,
- access to justice (HTML) in environmental matters
That is why we also talk of the three "pillars" of the Aarhus Convention.
These rights are of course interlinked. Being correctly informed is vital for making choices that avoid harming the environment, or being able to give your opinion and have an influence on the decisions to be taken by the public authorities. To guarantee the application of these rights, it must also be possible to have access to justice if you consider that you have been wrongly treated.
It is also considered that these rights will make it possible to increase administrative transparency in the way in which decisions about the environment are taken at the different administrative levels involved. That is why some people talk about a new kind of "environmental governance", which means a new way of governing that is more inclusive and better adapted to environmental issues.
The Aarhus Convention was adopted on 25 June 1998, and signed by 39 European countries, as well as by the European Community itself. It came into force on 30 October 2001 and 36 countries are currently Parties to the Convention, including Belgium. The Aarhus Convention has been in force there since 21 April 2003.
Belgium has ratified this Convention, which means that it must respect and implement it on a national level. Implementing an international convention means ensuring that its provisions are transposed into law and applied in government policies. Let us not forget, however, that in Belgium certain powers concerning the environment are attributed to the Regions. This means that the three Regions and the Federal Government are obliged to implement the Convention, each according to its own competences (see fact sheet Administrations and NGO: distribution of powers (HTML)).
As the European Community has also ratified the Aarhus Convention, it has therefore taken over the provisions concerning access to information, public participation and access to justice into Community law.
The new obligations deriving from the Aarhus Convention are thus of two types at European level:
- either they are aimed at the 25 Member States in the form of a directive;
- or they are aimed at the institutions and bodies of the European Community (the European Commission, European Parliament, European Environmental Agency, etc.) in the form of a regulation.
DG Environment’s "Citizenship and Environment" team works in particular on expressing these rights in legal and practical terms in line with DG Environment’s powers.
Responding to an international request, in late 2004 the "Citizenship-Environment" team drafted a federal report on the implementation of the Convention (in French) (WEB). This report was subject to public consultation via the Internet. A questionnaire was also put to the public to find out how much they knew about the Aarhus Convention. The results of this consultation (in French) (WEB) were also made public via the Internet.
The role of the "Citizenship and Environment" team is to ensure coherent implementation of the Aarhus Convention as regards the powers and responsibilities of the Federal Government in Belgium. It regularly coordinates its work with the regional administrations responsible for the same issues with regard to their own powers and responsibilities. To this end, the team acts as a federal "focal point" for the Aarhus Convention, as well as coordinating the positions of the Federal Government and the Regions for international negotiations. Finally, it plays an active role in international meetings on the subject, exchanging experiences and best practices with the other States that have either signed or ratified the Convention.
DG Environment's "Communication" team is also actively involved in all practical and aspects of the organisation and transmission of information (HTML) held by DG Environment
See also the following fact sheets: