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Promoting safe spaces for environmental defenders and public participation in decisions on products and chemicals

Upholding the principles of environmental democracy means ensuring a safe space for shaping the environment for all members of the public, including environmental activists, who are increasingly under threat in many countries. It also means making sure the public is equipped to participate in and make informed decisions on environmental matters, even for complex and technical subjects.

At the eighth meeting of the Task Force on Public Participation in Decision-Making under the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), the participants discussed and made proposals to address the rise in repression and brutality against environmental activists. They also held a special session to address difficulties regarding public participation in decisions on chemicals and products, owing the complexity of such decisions and the often highly technical language of the information underpinning them.

The meeting, held in Geneva on 8 and 9 October 2018 under the leadership of Italy, gathered representatives of Parties to the Convention, other countries, NGOs, international organizations, Aarhus Centres, regional environmental centres, academia, judiciary institutions and other stakeholders from across the region. Other topics discussed included systemic issues with regard to ensuring effective public participation. The participants also had the opportunity to share experiences and good practices on public participation, including linked to the implementation of Maastricht Recommendations on Promoting Effective Public Participation in Decision-making in Environmental Matters.

Protection of environmental rights defenders

At the most recent session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention, held in Montenegro in September 2017, Parties voiced their strong concerns regarding the increase in the harassment, silencing and even murder of environmental activists around the world. That concern was reflected in the Budva Declaration on Environmental Democracy for Our Sustainable Future, in which Parties were called on to ensure due protection of environmental activists, whistle-blowers and NGOs so that they could exercise their rights without being threatened.

The participants at the Task Force meeting followed up on that call, devoting a session to the issue of the protection of persons exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention. In 2017, Global Witness documented 207 killings of land and environmental defenders – ordinary people who were murdered for defending their forests, rivers and homes against destructive industries. That was six more murders than in 2016, making it the worst year on record. The participants discussed the existing challenges, such as fear of reporting such incidents, impunity and the difficulties associated with trying to uncover who was responsible for ordering and executing such acts of repression. Participants highlighted the crucial importance of establishing and maintaining a safe and enabling environment that empowered members of the public to exercise their rights. In that regard, participants were informed about different mechanism established under the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Environment Programme focused on the protection of environmental human rights defenders.

The Task Force highlighted that lack of effective and inclusive public participation in decision-making on environmental matters could serve to escalate potential conflicts and called on Parties to review their legal frameworks and practical arrangements in line with the obligation of the Convention and to address other systemic challenges, as reported by speakers, to ensure that persons exercising their rights in conformity with the Convention’s provisions were not penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement. During the discussion, it was suggested to consider establishing an arrangement under the Aarhus Convention that would allow for rapid reaction in such cases and for Aarhus Parties to create “environmental defender shelters”.

It was emphasized that the implementation of article 3, paragraph 8, of the Aarhus Convention could support Sustainable Development Goal target 16.10, dedicated to the protection of fundamental freedoms. 

Chemicals- and product-related decision-making

The issue of chemicals- and product-related decision-making is very complex and the related information is often highly technical, which frequently makes it difficult for the public to comprehend and engage effectively in decision-making on such subjects. And yet such decisions have a major impact on the environment and public health. One such example, is the case of glyphosate, a pesticide that was classed in 2015 as “probably carcinogenic” and which has been the subject of much debate in the European Parliament, and a major court case in the United States of America.

The Task Force reiterated that effective public participation in chemicals- and product-related decision-making remained crucial to ensure environmental protection, safe management of chemicals and wastes and sustainable consumption and production.

The Parties shared experiences on how that challenge was tackled in their countries. Several Parties had recently revised or were in the process of revising their legislation and promoted synergy with other international instruments dealing with chemicals aimed at enhancing public participation procedures in that field.

Speakers reported challenges encountered in addressing the issue due to high complexity of the subject and its rather technical nature. It was pointed out that there was a need to present information relevant for decision-making in a complete and comprehensive way, including on the composition of substances and their possible impact on the environment and health. It was suggested to reach out and engage authorities responsible for health matters and to initiate multi-stakeholder dialogues in countries with the involvement of authorities and different stakeholders, including producers, researchers, NGOs, and health and environmental specialists.

The Task Force underscored that transparency and public participation in chemicals- and product- related decision-making could support Governments’ efforts in implementing a number of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, Goal 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) and Goal 12 (Responsible production and consumption).

The Task Force welcomed initiatives of Parties and stakeholders reported by speakers aimed at further promoting transparency and public participation in chemicals- and product- related decision-making.

Progress and systemic challenges

A session on ensuring effective public participation was focused on the issues of meaningful and early public participation; the availability of all relevant documents to the public; effective notification and time frames for public participation; and ensuring that greater account was taken of comments from the public and that appropriate feedback was given to the public on how such comments have been taken into account in making the final decision.

Several Parties had made considerable efforts to provide meaningful and early public participation through the revision of legislation; others shared experiences on different practical tools and arrangements made to make existing procedures more effective. Practical steps had been taken by some Parties to establish online platforms for public notification and access to all relevant information, which was critical for effective participation of the public in decision-making. The Task Force called to continue sharing and learning from those experiences and to improve the functionality of the portals. It also highlighted the importance of the involvement of the public in developing such platforms to address the needs of different users. At the same time, the need for using non-digital means for notification and access to information was also necessary to overcome the existing digital divide.

The participants heard about good practices for effective notification and with regard to time frames for public participation. Interesting examples were drawn from a comparative legal study related to the comments from the public in the final decisions. Participants also exchanged views on how to measure effectiveness of public participation.

The Task Force reiterated the need for the Parties to the Aarhus Convention to ensure that practical arrangements for public participation procedures were designed in a way to ensure truly effective participation and called on Parties to allocate the required resources. Parties, international organizations, Aarhus Centres and other stakeholders were encouraged to initiate or continue training of public officials responsible for designing and carrying out public participation procedures for decision-making, especially at the subnational and local levels.

The participants noted that the upcoming UNECE Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, to be held in March 2019, would provide an opportunity to highlight the outcomes of the Task Force’s work at the regional and global levels, and how effective public participation in decision-making in environmental matters supported the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular target 16.7: ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

Maastricht Recommendations

The Task Force continued its practice of sharing good practices and experiences in the implementation of the Maastricht Recommendations and reiterated its call on Parties, international organizations, Aarhus Centres, and other stakeholders to further promote their application and continue documenting good practices for Aarhus Good Practice database.