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Leaving no one behind: Budva events promote people’s right to build a sustainable future for all

Ambition turns into practice in Budva

The transformation of our world starts today. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and environmental democracy are at the centre of the Meetings of the Parties to the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) and its Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (Protocol on PRTRs), which will be held in Budva, Montenegro from 11 to 15 September 2017. The meetings are held at the invitation of the Government of Montenegro and will also feature a joint High-level Segment (HLS) on 14 September.

At these meetings, Parties are expected to discuss global promotion of the two treaties and agree on a number of decisions to guide their implementation for the next four years. At the High-level Segment, Parties to both instruments will reaffirm their political commitment to participatory environmental democracy by adopting a Declaration which will form the basis for promoting transparency, access to justice and inclusive and effective public participation in environmental matters throughout the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The High-level Segment aims to demonstrate the interlinkages between the two treaties and sustainable development and address the ways the Convention and the Protocol can provide answers to global challenges, including but not limited to sustainable development. 

"Democracy, good governance and the rule of law are at the heart of sustainable development. They are also prerequisites for addressing cross-cutting global challenges, such as climate change, environmental impacts on health, exposure to chemicals and availability of clean water. All stakeholders must work together if we want to overcome these challenges. This is why the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on PRTRs promote wide involvement of NGOs, the private sector, the public at large and other stakeholders in environmental decision-making, alongside the government."

Ms Olga Algayerova

Under-Secretary-General

Executive Secretary of UNECE 

 

 

What they are saying…

UNECE spoke to some of the leading lights of the Budva meetings to learn their views about the current state of play of the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol and their hopes for the future:

 

Mr. Radulovic, Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism, Montenegro

What in your view is the added value of the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on PRTRs in shaping the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Having in mind the scope of the 2030 Agenda, the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on PRTRs represent a powerful tool for Montenegro to engage the citizens effectively in implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its 167 out of 169 targets (2 are not applicable for Montenegro) and to monitor the progress in its implementation. Member States recognize the importance of the linkages between data, monitoring, and accountability, and they called for high-quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data to measure progress and to intensify efforts to strengthen statistical capacities.

Easy-to-access information empowers public officials, entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and citizens to take informed decisions that impact our environment, change our production and consumption patterns and overall well-being. While there are other similar initiatives (such as e-portals and applications) that have set a trend towards greater openness regarding information, monitoring, reporting and accountability, ‘follow-up and review’ is a core component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In what ways does the Budva Declaration respond to contemporary environmental, economic and social challenges?

Environmental, economic and social challenges are becoming increasingly complex and interrelated. In that regard, involvement of the public in decision-making processes is of crucial importance. Participation of the public, including all interested stakeholders, must be encouraged in public debates and planning processes of importance to sustainable development of society, satisfying the broadest public interest to maximal possible extent. Improvement of transparency in governance structures is of particular importance, and it should be achieved through timely provision of information to the public and through increased opportunities for the public to express its opinion. It is also crucial that public remarks influence the work of public administration in the early stages of the decision making process and that they are also taken into account when  implementing regulations, public policies, programs and projects. Human, social, environmental and economic resources are key national resources that need to be sustainable by preserving “the right to development” for each coming generation. Our responsibility towards future generations obliges us to commit to a “people-centered” approach to development, which enables sustainable and mutually connected valorization of these resources.

Which actions is your country taking to promote public participation in the implementation of SDGs?

As an ecological state, proclaimed by the Parliament in 1991, and a country of exceptional natural beauty, Montenegro attaches particular importance to the implementation of the Aarhus Convention and bases its development on the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection, which is one of the necessary requirements in the European integration process. Our country seeks to systematically integrate environmental matters in all spheres of society and decision-making processes. In this respect, special significance pertains to participation of all relevant social actors in environmental policy creation, and raising public awareness on environmental protection matters. The Government of Montenegro adopted its National Strategy for Sustainable Development until 2030 (NSSD) in July 2016. This document represents a national answer to the 2030 Agenda. It is an umbrella, horizontal and long-term development strategy of Montenegro, which refers to four key resources: human, social, economic and environmental. It further sets out a clear action plan as an answer to unsustainable development trends. The Strategy was developed through wide stakeholder consultative and participatory approach. Moreover, the process of monitoring the progress in its implementation is defined in such a way to include representatives of all relevant stakeholder groups, which will enable the application of an accountability mechanism.

 

Ms. Maia Bitadze, Chair of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention

What in your view is the added value of the Aarhus Convention in shaping the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

We all have taken commitment to effectively implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, ensuring that “no one is left behind”. Despite some SDGs referring to economic and social dimensions and not specifically to the environmental one, all of them are directly or indirectly related to the environment. Therefore, it is obvious that SDGs cannot be properly implemented without consideration of environmental issues. Moreover, when implementing SDGs we have to respect human rights where one of the key of them is the “ecological right” – to live in a healthy environment.  This can only be achieved through access to information, public participation in a decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. And here comes the Aarhus Convention – the most powerful instrument for encouraging governments of the UNECE region to take effective measures towards the implementation of SDGs, and supporting our citizens to be involved in the implementation process of the 2030 Agenda.

In what ways does the Budva Declaration respond to contemporary environmental, economic and social challenges? 

Reading the Budva Declaration, I see that the best way to respond to environmental, economic and social challenges the globe is facing, such as climate change, resource depletion, environmental disasters, chemicals and waste, energy, human health, etc., is by fostering transparency through effective access to environmental information, rising awareness through promoting education for sustainable development and information sharing; ensuring sustainable decision-making through encouraging public participation; and building peaceful and just societies through effective access to justice in environmental matters. Moreover, it is important that the Budva Declaration emphasizes the necessity of environmental decision-making, especially in the context of the implementation of SDGs, and encourages decision-makers to take stronger and more effective actions to create a healthier and more sustainable environment.

What’s next? What’s the future of the Convention? What should be the main priorities for the near future?

We need the Aarhus Convention for strengthening environmental democracy in the region. Implementation of the principles of the Convention requires firstly, political will and secondly capacity of the countries. I believe that cooperation between countries and exchange of experience is essential. Furthermore, educational and awareness-raising activities are significant for developing a proper understanding and for implementing the Convention. The Convention should be perceived not as a burden for the governments but on the contrary, as a helpful instrument for supporting them in implementing their obligation to create a healthy environment for their population. In addition, considering the principles of the Convention, which are and should be applicable to international environmental treaties and processes, one of its main priorities should be to build synergies between them and the Convention. Thus, while acting within its mandate, the Aarhus Convention can support other relevant fora in developing more transparent, inclusive and effective decision-making processes.

 

Ms. Tina Skarman, Chair of the Meeting of the Parties of the Protocol on PRTRs

What in your view is the added value of the Protocol on PRTRs in shaping the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Public access to environmental information is crucial for the successful implementation of a number of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Protocol’s provisions support countries in building publicly accessible databases to monitor pollution and to review the effectiveness of measures taken to reduce environmental pollution. PRTR data can be used to track releases (to air, water and land) and transfers (of waste and via waste water treatment plants) over time. Due to its cross-cutting nature, PRTR data can be combined with other types of information (for example health, demographic and economic) and such combinations of datasets can contribute to the effective achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In what ways does the Budva Declaration respond to contemporary environmental, economic and social challenges?

Basically speaking, the Budva Declaration states that the world is facing major challenges that require a change of our society and that we all need to work together to achieve a sustainable future. Access to information and public participation are fundamental elements in fact-based decision-making concerning our future and in this sense both the Aarhus Convention and the Protocol on PRTRs play an important role, especially by inspiring others to include these elements.

What’s next? What’s the future of the Protocol on PRTRs? What should be the main priorities for the near future?

A PRTR system is not fully effective unless it is known and used by the public and by key stakeholders. Thus, raising public awareness is an essential element in PRTR development and implementation. In order to raise awareness of environmental issues in our society, it is important to reach out to young people. In this sense, PRTRs can be used as a valuable tool for educational purposes regarding the environment in different levels of the educational system. PRTRs have the potential to become portals to environmental information for the public, not only linking to other countries’ PRTRs but also to other relevant environmental information.

 

Mr. Jonas Ebbesson, Chair of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee

What have been the main achievements of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Mechanism and which are the main challenges ahead?

I think the main achievement is that the Compliance Committee has done what it is mandated and expected to do:

  • It has examined compliance by the Parties and helped bringing non-compliant Parties towards compliance.
  • It has, through its findings, developed jurisprudence regarding the interpretation of the Convention, and thus clarified how the Convention is to be understood and what is required by the Parties.

The Committee has carried out these functions while maintaining its integrity vis-à-vis the Parties and civil society. Nobody can seriously reproach the Committee for being biased or partial, or for not subscribing to the rule of law and due process in its activities.

In my view, through its activities, the Committee has helped keeping alive the Convention as well as the discourse and development of matters covered by the Convention. It has also shown the rest of the world how a compliance mechanism can constructively, and in dialogue with the Parties and civil society, promote participatory rights in environmental matters. The world is looking at the Aarhus Convention!

I am sure the Convention would have been far less effectively implemented and complied with, had there not been an adequate compliance mechanism to which the public and the Parties may bring cases for review. So, these are important achievements.

In many ways, the achievements thus far reflect the challenges ahead. The Committee must carry out its activities impartially, independently and effectively also in the future.

A particular challenge is to make sure that all the Committee’s findings of non-compliance are endorsed by the Meeting of the Parties also in the future. Since the establishment of the Committee, there has been a consistent practice to that effect, supported by all Parties. However, in the run-up to the sixth session of the Meeting of the Parties the Committee has noticed activities which may put this established practice at risk. If the Meeting of the Parties decides not to endorse the Committee’s findings in a specific case, without any solid legal reason, I think this will have significant adverse effects for the trustworthiness and effectiveness of the entire treaty regime. While this is a challenge for the Committee, it is even more so for the authority of the Meeting of the Parties and for the image of the Parties who would support such a deviation. So I hope this will be avoided.

 

Mr. Alistair McGlone, Chair of the Compliance Committee of the Protocol on PRTRs

What are the main conclusions following the second reporting cycle for the Protocol? What are the main signs of progress in the region and the main challenges ahead? 

I am proud of the work my colleagues in the Compliance Committee and the Secretariat have done on the synthesis report, which identifies significant trends, challenges and solutions on the implementation of the Protocol. There is plenty to be optimistic about: a considerable majority of Parties have reported on time, and most Parties have implementing legislation in place and are taking their obligations seriously.

The report is too long to summarise here, but in personal view two things stood out. First, some Parties are still reporting there is a lack of involvement of civil society in the process of development of PRTRs, so in some areas we need to involve the public even more to ensure that they contribute all they can. Secondly, Parties with economies in transition face challenges in implementing their PRTRs because of financial constraints, a lack of human resources and technical facilities; continuing international cooperation and assistance to those countries is a priority.

I see two particular challenges ahead.

First, the Protocol is amongst the more detailed and prescriptive of environmental treaties. So Parties need to continue to get to grips with the challenging job of transposing all that detail into their national legal systems and to make sure that they guarantee the quality and availability of information on pollutants.

Then there is a more complex second issue. The Compliance Committee considers that it is important rigorously to evaluate the effectiveness of the Protocol; it would be useful to have evidence that the Protocol is working well because that would make it easier to recruit new Parties and justify further resources and because that would indicate where further work could bring added value. We found it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of the success of the Protocol by using indicators in the strategic plan, and we will be asking for a mandate for further work on the evaluation of the Protocol.

On 15 September there will be an open session of the Committee on lessons learned from the second reporting cycle. If you read this before then, come and tell us what you think! 

 

Mr Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau

In what ways does the Budva Declaration respond to contemporary environmental, economic and social challenges?

Through highlighting key values of the Aarhus Convention and its PRTR Protocol and linking these to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Budva Declaration goes to the heart of an old problem – the challenge of keeping governments accountable and empowering the public – and places it in a contemporary context. The Convention and its Protocol are every bit as important, and needed, today as they were when they were adopted in 1998 and 2003 respectively. It would be nice to think that the battle for environmental democracy could be won in a decisive moment through the adoption of a key international law. Unfortunately the reality is less satisfying: rather it is the story of an ongoing struggle, sometimes incremental progress, sometimes significant setbacks as we have seen with the recent proposal from the EU to, for the first time, reject the long-standing practice of endorsement of all Compliance Committee findings of non-compliance by the Meeting of the Parties.

In what ways does the Budva Declaration help increase the protection of environmental activists?

Expressing alarm at the increase in the harassment, silencing and even murder of environmental activists around the world, as the draft Budva Declaration does, is absolutely necessary, even if such declarations do not immediately change the facts on the ground. Global Witness records show a sharp increase over the past years in the number of environmental defenders killed. The Atlas of Environmental Justice (ejatlas.org) catalogues over 2200 environmental conflicts. Thirteen of the 285 cases with deaths are located in a Party to the Aarhus Convention. Both teams say that they are merely scratching at the surface of an ongoing surge of attacks on environmentalists. On a global level, this surge is directly related to our overstressed system of ever-increasing extraction, production, consumption and waste. A stronger commitment by Aarhus Parties to sustainable consumption and production would decrease pressure on the commodity and waste frontiers, where most attacks on environmentalists happen.

What's up next? What is the future of the Convention and its Protocol on PRTRs? What should be the main priorities for the near future?

Next year will see the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Aarhus Convention. Some years ago, one might have hoped that such an occasion would be marked by the adoption of an ‘Aarhus 2.0’, a quantum step forward addressing the well-known weaknesses of the Convention. The prospects of that seem remote today as many Parties are on the defensive, reluctant to take on new commitments and even pushing back against those they have already taken on.

That said, there is certainly much to celebrate – a half empty glass is also half full. Many countries have transformed their laws and practices in the effort to comply with the Convention. Even if many Parties have been found to be in non-compliance, the very fact that there is a transparent, participatory mechanism that brings such instances of non-compliance to light and seeks to tackle them can be seen as a major success.

 

Welcoming new members of the Aarhus family!

Malta and Ukraine will be participating for the first time in Budva as Parties to the Protocol on PRTRs.

In addition, the amendment to the Convention on public participation in decisions on the deliberate release into the environment and placing on the market of genetically modified organisms (GMO amendment) was ratified by France, Georgia and Malta since the fifth session of the MOP. This reduces the number of ratifications needed for the amendment to enter into force to only 2.

We are also pleased to welcome the submission of the first national implementation report by Switzerland for the Aarhus Convention and by the Republic of Moldova for the Protocol on PRTRs.  

 

Meeting highlights

 

Ensuring compliance

The Compliance Committees of the Aarhus Convention and the Protocol on PRTRs are important tools to assist Parties in implementing the requirements of the Convention and its Protocol. Both Compliance Committees are non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative mechanisms and, very specially, allow for members of the public, as well as Parties and the secretariat, to bring compliance issues before them.

The Aarhus Convention MOP will review progress made by Parties to implement the decisions on compliance adopted at the fifth session concerning Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, the European Union, Germany, Kazakhstan, Romania, Spain, Turkmenistan and Ukraine based on reports prepared by the Committee. In this inter-sessional period, the Committee has constructively worked with Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, the European Union, Germany, Kazakhstan, Norway, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Sweden, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the United Kingdom in considering their compliance with the Convention. As a result, the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention will consider the adoption of decisions on compliance for the following Parties: Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, the European Union, Kazakhstan, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on PRTR’s will review the work of the Protocol’s Compliance Committee, including the synthesis report prepared for the Protocol’s second reporting cycle, which highlights developments, good practices and obstacles encountered by Parties in implementing the Protocol.

 

Furthering transparency

Effective access to information remains a priority for Parties to the Convention and the Protocol. In this regard the Convention’s Meeting of the Parties is expected to discuss progress achieved in this area and adopt a decision that will seek to e.g. strengthen active dissemination of up-to-date, accurate and functional data and information that is understandable to the public. The decision also focuses on several priority areas such as access to information with respect to genetically modified organisms, emissions into the environment and environmental decision-making procedures. The Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol will discuss, inter alia, a long-term vision on how to contribute to the prevention and reduction of pollution by increasing transparency and by encouraging improvements in environmental performance which will ultimately lead to sustainable and environmentally sound development.

 

Promoting effective public participation in decision-making

Meaningful and early public participation in environmental decision-making, including in the context of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, is a critical area of work that will be addressed at the upcoming meetings in Budva. Parties to the Convention are expected to adopt a decision that will cover the further promotion of effective public participation, including in such areas as the extractive sector, chemicals, emerging technologies, product-related decision-making and energy-related issues 

 

Promoting effective access to justice

In the face of growing concerns over the continuing harassment, persecution or even killing of environmental activists around the world, the protection of whistleblowers will receive special attention. While the rights of environmental activists and whistleblowers are relevant to all three pillars of the Aarhus Convention they are of crucial importance when reference is made to access to justice. The decision that the Parties to the Convention are expected to adopt in Budva will address this important matter. Other challenges on access to justice requiring special attention are financial barriers and restrictions on scope and standing. In this regard, Parties will focus on building capacities of public authorities, judges, public interest lawyers and other legal professionals including through the use of electronic tools and databases and exchange of knowledge, information and good practices from different parts of the region.

 

Sharing the achievements of the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol

The achievements of the Convention and the Protocol are continuing to inspire other countries and regions to make progress towards developing regional instruments on environmental rights (e.g. in Latin America and the Caribbean), as well as establishing PRTR systems around the globe. Parties to the Convention are closely monitoring the culmination of the negotiations for a regional instrument on environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean and the updates by representatives from the ECLAC region on the latest developments are expected with great interest.

 

Promoting the application of the principles of the Convention in international forums

As various international forums are in the process of revising their disclosure, safeguard, stakeholders’ involvement and access to information policies, the Parties to the Convention will discuss application of the principles of the Convention to international forums when dealing with matters relating to the environment. In this regard, they will adopt a decision addressing key challenges and the main priorities in this area of work.

 

Promoting inclusive and transparent decision-making on genetically modified organisms  

With only two ratifications pending for the entry into force of the Convention’s amendment regarding public participation in decisions on the deliberate release into the environment and placing on the market of genetically modified organisms (GMO amendment), this area of work has reached a turning point. Entry into force of the amendment will greatly contribute in further improving national legal and regulatory systems regarding the deliberate release and placing on the market of GMOs, will foster international cooperation to improve biosafety and will support important work in achieving relevant sustainable development goals through an inclusive and transparent process. The Budva events, including the plenary discussions and the side event organised jointly by the secretariats of the Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, will also be an opportunity for further enhancing cooperation and synergies between the two instruments and assisting countries to achieve progress in ratification.

 

Side events

More than 20 side events are scheduled to take place in Budva. These side events will address a number of topics, such as: access to justice and protection of environmental activists, transparency and information sharing through various electronic tools and databases, public participation in matters related to climate change, GMOs, green economy and global promotion of the Aarhus Convention and the Protocol on PRTRs.

 

Live broadcast of the HLS and social media

Not coming to Budva?

You can still listen to the discussions of the HLS which will be broadcast live from the website www.aarhusmontenegro.me

Follow us on twitter at @UNECE and @UNECEAarhus and join the discussion using the #AarhusBudva hashtag.

Additional information:

http://www.unece.org/env/pp/aarhusmop6&prtrmopp3/main.html

www.aarhusmontenegro.me

For any further information, please contact the Secretariat at:

aarhus-prtr-mops@unece.org