Public participation – the key in a political surrounding of closing spaces for civil society?

During the 23rd meeting of the Working Group of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention key systemic challenges were discussed and the importance of public participation in environmental decision-making processes was highlighted. 

The Aarhus Convention is a legally binding instrument for the UNECE region adopted in 1998, that aims at enforcing every person’s right to live in an environment that is adequate to his or her health and well-being by providing the rights of access to information (1st pillar), public participation in decision-making (2nd pillar) and access to justice (3rd pillar). Apart from connecting human and environmental rights, it also links environmental protection with government accountability, responsiveness and transparency.

On June 26-28 2019, the Working Group of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention met in Geneva for the 23rd time, where Anke Stock, Senior Specialist on Gender and Rights, shared knowledge within the discussion about key systemic challenges and trends regarding public participation in environmental decision-making under the Article 6,7 and 8 of the Aarhus Convention (public participation a) in decisions on specific activities b) concerning plans, programmes and policies relating to the environment and c) during the preparation of executive regulations and/or generally applicable legally binding normative instruments). The meeting contained two thematic sessions, one on public participation in decision-making in the form of an interactive panel discussion illustrating public participation in decision-making in different sectors. The other one focused on the promotion of the principles of the Convention in international forums, specifically in policies of international financial institutions and on cross-cutting issues like innovating practices or hosting international events.

Also, the concerning situation of environmental defenders, who increasingly have to face serious threats like harassments, silencing and even murdering – also in countries that had ratified the Aarhus Convention – was emphasized during the meeting. It was suggested to provide “environmental defender shelters” in countries that are Parties to the Aarhus Convention to ensure security for persecuted environmental defenders and in general to implement effective measures to enable safe public participation.

During Anke’s talk in the name of the European ECO Forum, she highlighted the need to strongly implement truly effective public participation in a political surrounding of closing spaces for civil society. She identified public participation as a key element of an enabling environment and put emphasis on the role that public participation plays within the SDG implementation and the realisation of the aim of the 2030 Agenda “to leave no one behind”.

Within the meeting, systemic challenges such as a lack of sufficient and reasonable timeframes, missing effective notification on the public but also the involvement of vulnerable and marginalized groups was detected. Yet, the positive trend for an easier accessibility of documents through electronic means was identified improving public participation with regard to Article 6,7 and 8.

For more information on decisions and major outcomes of the meeting, check out the list published by UNECE.