The Aarhus Convention (.PDF) lays down basic rules for participation, while allowing the signatory states (the nations ratifying the Aarhus Convention) the freedom to choose the means they deem appropriate for guaranteeing compliance with these rules.
Essentially, the basic rules concern:
- the obligation to inform the population in an efficient manner and at the appropriate time;
- the obligation to devise a participation procedure from the outset: “when all options are open and effective public participation can take place";
- reasonable time-frames to enable effective participation;
- the public authority’s obligation to take account of the participation procedure’s results.
Two types of environmental decisions
The Aarhus Convention lays down the minimum requirements for public participation, depending on the type of environmental decision. It distinguishes between decisions about, on the one hand, projects or specific activities with an impact on the environmental (HTML) (article 6) and, on the other, plans, programmes and policies relating to the environment(HTML)(article 7). A new article will also be added specifically for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (future article 6 bis), setting out the conditions for participation.
With regard to projects and specific activities (and not, therefore, plans and programmes), the Convention also stipulates that the competent public authority:
- must allow the population free access to all the necessary information (there is even a list of what constitutes the minimum information);
- must inform the population of the final decision, stating the reasons and considerations behind that decision.
The public concerned
Public participation is confined to the “public concerned”, i.e. that section of the population that is or might be affected by the decisions to be taken. In each situation, the competent public authority itself identifies the public concerned. The Aarhus Convention states that environmental associations are, by definition, part of the public concerned.
Precision and enforceability
The obligations imposed by the Aarhus Convention are, by and large, described with relative precision and are enforceable for projects and specific activities as well as environmental plans and programmes. The authorities of the nations that have ratified the Convention must ensure that the Convention’s provisions are transposed into legislative procedures and policies. In Belgium this is a task for both the federal government and the three regions, each acting within their sphere of competence.