• English

Almaty, Kazakhstan, 25-27 May 2005
Opening remarks by Mrs Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary,

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be able to join Minister Samakova in welcoming you to the high-level segment of the second meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention. Let me begin by conveying to you the good wishes of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan and reading out a message which he asked me to deliver to you:

[reads message of Secretary-General]

That was the message of the Secretary-General, and I would like to echo his remarks concerning the significance of this Convention. It is unique among multilateral environmental agreements in the extent to which it seeks to empower ordinary people, enabling them to have a say in decisions that affect their environment. By establishing concrete procedures to realise the principles of environmental democracy, the Convention addresses, in a practical way, the relationship between human rights and the environment. Its implementation has and will continue to strengthen government accountability and contribute to the creation of more integrated societies, in which people can feel that their voices are heard.

This meeting takes place almost seven years after the adoption of the Convention in the Danish city of Aarhus. In that time, much has happened. The entry into force of the Convention in October 2001 just over three years following its adoption was already a significant achievement, allowing the first meeting of the Parties to be held in Lucca in October 2002. The adoption of the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers at the Kiev Ministerial Conference in May 2003 was another important milestone.

Since Lucca and Kiev, the momentum has continued. The most obvious sign of this is the substantial increase in the number of Parties to the Convention. In Lucca, I welcomed the fact that so many States from Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia were in the forefront of ratifying the Convention. I also expressed the hope that before the second meeting of the Parties, most States in Western and Central Europe would have become Parties. That hope has now become a reality. With 35 Parties to the Convention, the countries of our region that are not yet Parties begin to stand out more on the map than those that are. I particularly welcome the recent ratification of the Convention by the European Community, which will have implications not only for the member States but also for the Community institutions.

Apart from this quantitative growth, there has also been qualitative evolution, which is reflected in the agenda of the present meeting. Whereas in Lucca the main achievement was to put in place the broad institutional structures of the Convention – the rules of procedure, the compliance and reporting mechanisms, the scheme of financial arrangements, and so on - here in Almaty, Parties and other stakeholders have for the first time the opportunity to review how the Convention is working in practice.

Central to this review process is the reporting mechanism that was established in Lucca. Indeed, it may be argued that periodically reviewing the implementation of an international treaty is of no less importance than drafting, adopting or ratifying it. You have before you the outcome of the first reporting cycle, in the form of 26 national reports on implementation, and a synthesis report prepared by the secretariat. The national reports contain an impressive body of information whose value will persist far beyond this meeting. They confirm that the Convention is the main driving force behind the strengthening of procedural environmental rights throughout Europe and Central Asia. Many countries, as well as the European Community, have introduced or are in the course of preparing new legislation to implement the Convention. There is no reason to believe that this progress would have been achieved without the Convention.

Complementing the reporting regime is the Convention’s unique and innovative compliance mechanism, mentioned in the Secretary-General’s message. As it is the first time that a compliance mechanism under a multilateral environmental agreement provides a formal possibility for the public, including NGOs, to raise concerns about non-compliance, there will no doubt be considerable interest in the outcome of your deliberations on this topic and more generally in how the mechanism functions and evolves over time. Reconciling the Convention’s requirement that the mechanism be ‘non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative’ with the fact that it should be open to communications from the public, which almost by definition are likely to be critical, presents a challenge but not an insuperable one. The fact that Parties choose to expose themselves to the scrutiny and possible criticism of their implementation by the public is commendable and should be regarded as a strength, and I therefore welcome the fact that no Parties have exercised their right to opt out of that possibility. The experience to date does not indicate any abuse by the public of the right to make communications.

The reports, as well as the deliberations of the Compliance Committee, reveal that considerable work remains to be done in many countries, especially those with economies in transition, to enable them to establish the infrastructure that they need to fully realise the potential of the Convention. Capacity building must remain a high priority. I strongly urge the donor community to provide the necessary financial support to projects that will assist countries in transition to fully implement the Convention and maximise its benefits. Financial support is certainly not a panacea and there must always be a political will among the decision-makers as well as other stakeholders in order for real progress to be made. But in some cases, relatively small amounts of funding can make a large difference.

Let me take this opportunity to express my appreciation of the work of a number of international and regional organizations engaged in capacity building projects aimed at promoting implementation of the Convention. Important projects have been and are being undertaken by, among others, the regional environmental centres, UNEP, UNITAR, UNDP, OSCE, the European Commission, through its EuropeAid programme, and the Access Initiative. UNECE is committed to continuing and deepening its collaboration with these and other partners in the coming period, using the Aarhus Clearinghouse for Environmental Democracy as a tool for making information available on their activities.

One trend that emerges from the implementation reports is that implementing the access to justice pillar of the Convention appears to present the greatest challenge to countries from all parts of the region. This underlines the importance of continuing and building upon the valuable work already undertaken in this area, and I therefore welcome the recommendations on this topic that have been prepared for adoption at this meeting.

Welcome too is the creative application by the Parties of new information and communication technology to increase the transparency of environmental information and facilitate public participation in decision making. The adoption during this meeting of recommendations on the more effective use of electronic information tools to provide public access to environmental information is a direct outgrowth of the experience gained in this area. I believe this will prove to be a lasting contribution to the development of a democratic Information Society.

This meeting is not only about implementation of the Convention as it stands today. It is also about its further development. It [brings to a conclusion, at least for the time being,] [marks an important step forward in] the long-running debate on the extent to which the public should have legally guaranteed rights to participate in decision-making with respect to genetically modified organisms (or GMOs). Given the scale and significance of the biotechnology industry, this is a hugely important subject. The high level of public interest in this issue has made it certainly one of the most controversial topics discussed under the Convention. The seeds of the debate can be traced right back to the day that the Convention was adopted, when the Signatories requested that the Parties, at their first meeting, further develop the application of the Convention by means of more precise provisions with respect to the deliberate release of GMOs. This was done first through the adoption of the non-binding guidelines in Lucca, and since then has been pursued through exploring options at the legally binding level [, culminating in the adoption of the Convention’s first amendment here in Almaty]. This will undoubtedly be of wide interest, including to Parties to the Cartagena Protocol.

Also of interest both within and outside the ECE region will be the outcome of your discussions on how to apply the principles of the Aarhus Convention in the context of international forums dealing with environmental matters. [The guidelines you have adopted on this topic] [Your efforts to prepare guidelines to Parties on this topic] could indirectly lead to greater transparency and accountability in a wide range of international bodies and processes in which the Parties to the Convention have a strong influence – without of course undermining the autonomy of such bodies and processes.

Distinguished delegates, the success of the Convention to date has only been made possible through the high level of commitment made by its Parties and Signatories, as well as supportive organizations. Specifically, I would like to thank OSCE for the financial support provided in connection with this particular meeting. More generally, I would like to thank all those countries, small and large, that have contributed to the Trust Fund financing the activities under the Convention. The voluntary scheme of contributions that you have established on an interim basis relies on the generosity of the Parties and much has been done on the basis of that scheme. Nonetheless, if the level of activities is to be maintained at the present level, it will be necessary to increase the total income. The secretariat will continue to explore other sources of support but the contributions from the Parties are likely to remain the mainstay of extrabudgetary funding for the time being so I would urge you to consider maintaining or even increasing your contributions.

Another factor in the success of this meeting is the committed involvement of civil society organizations. The high turnout of NGOs, in particular of environmental organizations under the ECO Forum umbrella, reflects the relevance of the Convention to all environmental issues.

I would like to conclude by expressing particular thanks to you, Minister Samakova, and the Government of Kazakhstan for hosting this meeting and for the warm welcome you have given us here. You and your staff have worked hard to provide an excellent setting for this meeting and we are all grateful to you for that. I hope that at least some delegates will be able to stay here during the weekend to take in the beautiful surroundings and enjoy the friendly hospitality that is so much a feature of this part of the world.

Unfortunately I will not be able to stay with you for more than a short time this morning, as I am expected to participate in the high level segment of the SPECA meeting in Astana, which happens to be taking place this very day. However, I hope that your deliberations during the remainder of this meeting are fruitful, and that the Convention continues to go from strength to strength.