A workshop on the Aarhus Convention was organised for the Central Asian region as a joint project of UNECE, UNEP and OSCE with financial assistance from the governments of Austria, Denmark (DEPA-DANCEE) and Norway. The workshop, which involved participation of both government officials and NGOs, was focused on five countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
A seminar on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters organised by OSCE with the assistance of UNECE on 11-12 June 1999 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, had revealed some problems with understanding and implementing the above concepts in Central Asia as well as the need for raising awareness of the requirements of the Aarhus Convention.
The main idea of the workshop was to assist countries of Central Asia in implementing the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention) by raising awareness about the Convention and building capacity in applying it. This should be done in co-operation with all relevant actors, including central and local authorities, non-governmental organizations, legal experts, the media and where relevant the business community. The workshop aimed to ensure that a 'seed' number of people representing various stakeholders in each country of the region would have a similar understanding of what the Aarhus Convention is about and of how to implement it in line with its requirements and with local conditions.
The workshop aimed to provide representatives of countries of the region involved in promoting and implementing access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters with an opportunity to share their relevant experience and to encourage a dialogue on the optimal approach, taking into account regional traditions and conditions, to implement the provisions of the Aarhus Convention.
The workshop was meant also to give participants an opportunity to consult foreign experts who had been involved in drafting the Convention and who have considerable experience in implementing its provisions in other countries, in particular in Central and Eastern European and NIS countries.
Immediate objectives of the project included:
- Providing for a seed group of people (roughly 10 from each country of the Central Asian Region) representing various stakeholders (officials, journalists and NGOs) an opportunity to better understand the Convention and ways of implementing it;
- Identification of major issues in implementing the Aarhus Convention in Central Asia;
- Identification of good practices;
- Identification of possible further practical means of implementation;
- Identification of directions of possible further assistance.
Furthermore, the project was intended to contribute to:
- Making sure that the understanding of the Convention is more or less common for all countries and all stakeholders, and that manuals and publications prepared in the region reflect the Convention accurately;
- Encouraging creation of an informal regional network to promote implementation of the Aarhus Convention;
- Promotion of the Aarhus Convention Implementation Guide.
The number of participants was limited by the funding available for the purpose, which allowed for about 40 participants from countries of the region outside of Turkmenistan (on average 10 participants from each country, half of them being officials and half representing other stakeholders).
All official focal points of the Aarhus Convention and focal points of UNEP Grid-Arendal and INFOTERRA networks were invited to the workshop. Efforts were also made to identify and invite other officials with relevant responsibilities in governments (including at other than central levels).
In the case of NGOs and other stakeholders, guiding criteria included practical and/or legal knowledge of the issues covered by the Convention (not necessarily of the Convention itself), and involvement with larger or more representative NGOs and the public from the region. The intention was to get input from both environmental lawyers and campaigning activists, as well as journalists. All project partners were requested to send the information about the workshop to their relevant contacts. In addition, the information was publicly advertised (also in Russian translation) on the Convention web page and in some networks (European ECO Forum network, some local NGO networks).
Priority was given to public interest lawyers, NGO campaigners and journalists working at national and/or local level who:
- Have experience and are currently involved in law drafting, court cases or other activities related to access to information, public participation, or access to justice in environmental matters;
- Are involved in projects, training or other educational or promotional efforts related to the Aarhus Convention;
- Have links with a larger NGO community and/or the general public.
In the end, the workshop was attended by 23 participants from Turkmenistan and 38 participants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Also participating in the workshop were representatives of embassies and international organizations, including from OSCE and UNDP offices in the region.
As facilitators/trainers served 7 experts (including 3 members of the Aarhus Convention Advisory Board) knowledgeable in both the Convention and "post-communist" conditions and able to communicate in Russian: 3 experts from REC-Szentendre, 1 expert from UNEP/GRID-Arendal, and 3 environmental lawyers from Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
In addition, representatives of UN/ECE, UNEP, Norway and Denmark were present and contributed to the agenda.
Workshop format and agenda
The agenda of the workshop was developed in co-operation with all partners and trainers on the basis of results of the June 1999 OSCE seminar as well the first local seminar on the Aarhus Convention organised by OSCE (with Soros funding) in Kazakhstan. The most important input to the agenda came from participants: candidates were asked to indicate issues that they would like to see addressed and to provide examples and possibly case studies. As a result, the workshop agenda was designed so as to devote 2 full days to the issues that appeared the most important for the participants, namely access to information and public participation, while general issues and access to justice took a half day each.
The workshop format included both plenary sessions, which were held in both Russian and English (simultaneous interpretation was provided) and small groups sessions held mostly in Russian. Plenary sessions included both lectures and facilitated discussions. Small groups sessions included: facilitated discussions and role play exercises (whereby officials were playing the role of NGOs requesting information and representatives of NGOs were playing the role of officials from various agencies). To facilitate working in small groups special case studies were prepared based on real cases from Central European and NIS countries.
A special voluntary session was also held to discuss the issue of relationships between officials and NGOs at which experiences from Poland, USA, Russia, Hungary and Ukraine were presented to illustrate different models.
All participants were provided with a set of written materials, including a copy of the Aarhus Convention Implementation Guide (in Russian or English).
Major issues in the implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Central Asia:
- Problems in ratification and implementation of the Convention in Central Asia are pretty similar to those in the rest of the UN/ECE region.
- Overall there has been significant progress in understanding and implementing the Convention in all the countries in Central Asia since the meeting in Almaty.
- There is a wish among both NGOs and governments to reach a consensus on the approach taken towards implementation.
- Much of the implementation is being done informally.
- There is a lack of detailed procedures that are clear for both authorities and the public.
- There is a wish among both NGOs and governments to reach a consensus on the approach taken towards implementation.
- Public involvement is limited to NGOs. The general public is rarely involved and therefore an effort has to be made to extend public participation procedures to the public in general.
- Proper implementation is heavily constrained by lack of resources on both governmental and public sides - one of the most acute problems is with access to the Internet (high costs and low reliability).
- There is a low level of public interest in environmental problems in general.
- The number of NGOs if taken per capita is rather small.
The workshop discovered some good practices in the region:
- Members of the public have a right to conduct their own assessments ('ecological expertise') in the context of environmental assessment procedures.
- Despite the fact that public participation is not envisaged by law in the preparation of decisions on programmes, policies, plans and draft legislation, NGOs are involved in such decisions in several countries.
Recommendations for further practical means of implementation:
- The workshop discussions showed the need for tools that help to foster understanding of the provisions of the Convention, and to facilitate by practical means the implementation of the Convention, e.g. guidelines for authorities on provision of information, on how to make a decision with regard to application of exemptions and on how to conduct a public interest test. On the other hand, it is important to set up a transparent and open framework to discuss the ratification and implementation process in the countries of Central Asia so that government officials and NGOs can have a dialogue about the issues related to the Convention and can co-operate. One way to achieve this is through establishing special committees working on the Aarhus Convention where both governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations are represented.
- One of the important tasks for NGOs remains networking, strengthening their co-operation and ensuring exchange of information within a given country (among NGOs in a given country, between NGOs and governmental institutions, between NGOs in different countries) on Aarhus-related matters.
- Representatives of governmental institutions (in particular at local level), from the private sector and from NGOs should be encouraged to participate in training programmes. There are local projects and experiences in some countries, and these can be used for organizing similar local level training sessions.
- The conclusions and recommendations of the workshop should be disseminated to other organizations so that they can use them. They should also be addressed to public authorities.
- One of the ways to involve the broader public is to organize seminars for journalists. They, in their turn, will raise all the relevant issues in the mass media.
- Another potential target group is students. Information can be delivered very efficiently through educational programmes and institutions.
- Closer relations are needed between NGOs and public authorities. As one of the participants noted: "Clapping can be only done with two hands."
Recommendations for further assistance:
The workshop discussed what further actions should be undertaken in the Central Asian countries to promote early implementation of the Convention.
Follow/up subregional workshops
Several participants felt that a further workshop or workshops involving the same five countries should be held. It was suggested that such workshops could be focussed on a particular theme under the Convention, and various options were proposed:
how to conduct public hearings;
how to motivate and involve the public;
the information pillar (eg information centres, ECO hotlines, Internet etc)
making effective use of the internet.
It was generally agreed that such a workshop or workshops should continue to involve both governments and NGOs, and that outside experts should still play a central role, though participants from the Central Asian countries might be expected to play a greater role in shaping the programme than had been the case with the present one.
National workshops and /or committees: National workshops were also considered to be useful, and some participants (eg from Tajikistan) announced plans for such workshops, again with the involvement of governmental officials and NGO representatives, and perhaps other stakeholders too (youth groups, business, students, etc). It was suggested that outside expertise could again be useful in this context, where resources permit, eg to give lectures.
Training programmes: It was suggested to organise in the short-term a training programme for trainers, to achieve a multiplier effect in the region and provide the practical means for follow-up action. Short term training sessions for NGOs and officials who work at district levels aimed at helping them to communicate with their communities could also prove useful.
NGO co-ordination structures: Some participants mentioned the value of NGOs forming coalitions to work on the Convention. Government and NGO representatives tended to have different perspectives on the role of NGOs in the implementation process. Some government representatives felt that NGOs were rather timid about entering a closer dialogue with government, and that attention should be given to establishing mechanisms to strengthen NGO involvement; whereas some NGO representatives felt that the workshop had not really been able to explore the issues which stood in the way of a closer engagement. However, no participants questioned the importance of NGOs being closely involved in the implementation process.
Information networks: Some participants mentioned the value of the information exchange between countries which had taken place during the workshop and proposed that information networks be established to ensure this on an ongoing basis. This could include creation of databases of legislation and could provide a framework for cooperation between environmental lawyers.
Publications: Participants were encouraged to use the Implementation Guide on the Convention to support the process of developing national legislation in conformity with the Convention. The idea of translating the Convention text into national languages was considered by some participants to be very important but others felt it not to be very useful because those members of the public not able to read the Russian version would find the technical legalistic language of the Convention rather inaccessible even when translated into their national language. However, it was generally agreed that it could be useful to publish a more popular style of publication in the national languages, with illustrations and plain-language explanations, presenting the issues covered by the Convention.
Other issues raised: One participant representing the Law and Environment Eurasian Partnership (LEEP) circulated a paper questioning the value of the Aarhus Convention and suggesting that it could even have a negative effect in the Central Asian countries. This statement was criticised by several other participants as being too categorical or too negative, and received virtually no support.
It was proposed in the LEEP paper to establish a sub-regional working group to examine the implications for Central Asia of not just the Aarhus Convention but of all international environmental conventions to which the Central Asian countries have subscribed. This proposal was not much discussed, perhaps because it went much wider than the scope of the Aarhus Convention or because it was coupled with a strongly sceptical attitude to the value of the Convention. A variation on the proposal was for the establishment of a working group under the auspices of the Aarhus Convention secretariat, involving both governments and NGOs from the region.
Several participants mentioned that funds were needed to make the Convention work. It was proposed that foreign governments and foundations be encouraged to earmark funding for Convention-related activities.
All the aims of the workshop seem to have been well achieved. As indicated by interventions during the closing session and remarks made in evaluation forms filled in by the participants, most participants appear to have found the workshop extremely useful and well organised. Participants emphasised in particular two positive characteristics, namely the fact that it provided a forum for exchange of experience between governments and NGOs and between the five countries involved, and the fact that it addressed all the articles of the Convention.