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Aarhus week in Geneva

Thanks to the committed Aarhus Parties and stakeholders the Aarhus principles are guiding international decision-making on matters relating to the environment across the globe. A number of meetings related to the Aarhus Convention were held in Geneva from 15 to 19 June 2015. The Working Group of Parties discussed, among others, one of the greatest successes of the Aarhus Convention — the enhancement of the role of civil society in international decision-making. Another focus was on the effectiveness of access to justice in environmental matters and the role access to justice could play for the future sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Transparency in international decision-making: why the Aarhus Convention matters for the global agenda

From the preparations for a new climate agreement in Paris in December at COP 21 to the expected adoption of a new agenda for global action in September following discussions on the post-2015 development agenda, “2015 is shaping up to be a milestone year for environmental governance. Therefore the principles of the Aarhus Convention are of increasing relevance”, stressed Monika Linn, Principal Adviser at UNECE.

Despite many efforts made by Aarhus Parties, public participation in international environmental decision-making faces serious challenges. While it was reported that there has been an unprecedented level of stakeholder engagement in shaping and developing SDGs and the post-2015 agenda, NGOs expressed concern over a lack of clarity regarding stakeholder participation in the future processes due to a recent decision to apply the ECOSOC rules of procedure to the processes of HLPF. If such decision is taken it could impact stakeholder engagement in this critical process.

Progress has been made with regard to implementing the Aarhus Convention’s principles in international climate change negotiations. New tools and online services have been put in place to provide access to documents on the UNFCCC website. France, the host of the UNFCCC COP 21, reported on a number of measures it took to apply Aarhus in practice.

Widespread concerns over lack of transparency in international trade negotiations made this topic high on the Aarhus agenda. The issue was discussed for the first time under the Convention’s auspices. The European Union reported that efforts were being continuously made to enhance public participation and increase the opportunities for stakeholders to express their views and opinions. NGOs said that initially the public had no chance to engage in discussions on TTIP, which threatened the application of the principles of the Convention. They saw a clear improvement in transparency but stressed at the same time that TTIP remained controversial as it could be a case where trade agreements had a negative impact on environmental legislation. Discussions demonstrated that international trade negotiations required stronger engagement of Aarhus Parties to bring the application of the Convention’s principles to the high standards in this area.

Access to justice for all in post-2015 agenda — Can the Aarhus Convention help?

Discussions during the Task Force on Access to Justice focused on the scope of review, costs and remedies — in particular, what decisions, acts and omissions can be reviewed, to what extent substantive and procedural issues can be reviewed and whether courts could alter administrative decisions which contravene provisions of domestic law.

The pivotal role that courts play in interpreting provisions of domestic law on access to justice and the importance that such provisions be interpreted in accordance with the Aarhus Convention was stressed. In this regard, participants highlighted the importance of strengthening networking of members of the judiciary, judicial institutions and other review bodies across the pan-European region and welcomed the initiative of establishing such network under auspices of the Task Force. “The issue of networking is not only training but exchange of information on practices of law where one can find inspiring solutions for the countries” said Matanat Asgarova of the Academy of Justice of Azerbaijan. 

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