A name of an international convention rarely tells a lot to the general public. Geneva Convention, Helsinki Convention, Stockholm Convention – they can be on anything ranging from modes of warfare to transboundary waters.
Unlike these, however, the Aarhus Convention is distinct and can be recognized easily, partly because this is the only international treaty made in this city but also because it became part of the vocabulary of the environmental civil society all across Europe. It is about our access rights in environmental matters:
- access to information
- participation in decision-making
- access to justice
and everybody refers to this piece of international legislation only as “Aarhus Convention”.
J&E is an expert on Aarhus Convention and what its proper implementation means on the national and the EU level. This is because we are lawyers promoting public participation in our respective countries, some of us for more than 20 years. We are also there on the EU arena for 10 years and participate in the major processes affecting the access rights.
What do we deal with?
We are interested in all aspects, the so-called pillars of the Aarhus system.
Access to information
On the national level, in our respective countries, we all struggle for more transparency from our public authorities and for a broader accessibility of public interest environmental data. We do it by awareness raising, consultations with government, searching for and requesting environmental information and also going to court if our request is refused by the public authorities. However, what we do on the EU level to achieve more transparency of EU level environmental information, with special regard to data of infringement cases (these are the cases that the EU Commission initiates against those Member States that fail to comply with EU law), is more visible.
Infringement data are secret, and are not to be disclosed to the public. We, however, believe that most of this secrecy is dependent upon the approach of the Commission (that could be altered), which applies exception clauses of transparency laws too broadly and too frequently. We therefore request these information from the EU as well as the Member States and go to court, including the Court of Justice of the EU. We also advocate for more transparency from the EU at every forum and event where we participate and express our views.
Participation in decision-making
national member organizations in 10 EU countries give free or low-cost
high-quality legal advice to the members of the public and NGOs in ongoing
environmental administrative procedures: permitting, licensing, land use,
construction procedures and the like. We can use our experience gained in these
processes to advocate, at the EU level, for more inclusive laws and practices
as well as a legislative framework that does not jeopardize the public’s right
to have a say in matters affecting their environment. On the EU level there is a legal instrument, the Request for Internal Review, which we have attempted to use many times since its inception in 2009. With this, we could in principle ask EU bodies to reconsider their standpoints in certain cases and, in case we are still not satisfied with the answer, we could take the case to the EU Court. In practice, however, this instrument has not worked. We work actively with partner organizations to see that this instrument can fulfill its promise in the future.
Access to justice
Justice is the ultimate tool to enforce rights to transparency and participation in case public authorities do not respect these rights in their conducts. We are not hesitating to take the governments or even the EU Commission to court if we believe that this is the only way to enforce our rights. This inspired many of our cases that we represent on the national level as well as a number of EU Court cases we pursue to achieve a wider access to environmental justice.
As part of this set of activities, we invested a lot of effort to convince the EU Commission in the first place that the EU needs a Directive on Access to Environmental Justice. Although a directive would mean a harmonized regime of access to justice in all 28 Member States and would guarantee the same rights to the public and NGOs throughout the Union, the European Commission chose a different path. It adopted a Notice on Access to Justice in Environmental Matters instead, on the 28 of April 2017. Despite this, we continue in our leadership role towards the push for access to justice in the Member States through this and other instruments and processes. In doing this we will acknowledge and rely on the Notice, while still revealing its gaps and serious drawbacks.
Last but not least, J&E is also operating the Visegrad 4 Aarhus Center, where our member organizations from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are at the service of the public in issues involving questions of transparency, inclusiveness and justice.