There have been calls for the government to raise public awareness of rights granted to Irish citizens following the Dáil vote today to allow ratification of the Aarhus Convention.
This international convention upholds the right of every person to have access to information about the environment, the right to participate in decision-making, and the right of access to justice.
Michael Ewing, speaking on behalf of the Environmental Pillar, welcomed the vote approving ratification as “an important milestone on our road to sustainability” but warned that “these rights are only meaningful if they are exercised. Raising public awareness of the Convention is therefore crucial for its effective implementation.
“Informed public participation is essential if the many important decisions that need to be made regarding the future of humanity are to be supported by these same members of the public,” he continued.
The convention is unique in the extent to which it seeks to enable ordinary people to have a say in decisions that affect their environment. It sets minimum standards for citizens’ rights, and is legally binding on those States that have signed up to it. This means that public and private bodies such as providers of natural gas, electricity and sewage services must respect these rights. Although Ireland signed up to the Convention in 1998 it has taken until this year for the government to ratify it. Public and private bodies have one year and 90 days from ratification to prepare for their new responsibilities.
Irish citizens will now have access to environmental information possessed by any government agency, and many private bodies, made available at a ‘reasonable’ charge, and generally within one month of receiving the request. These bodies must tell the public what kind of environmental information they have, and how to access it. In emergency situations, such as a day of unusually bad air pollution, authorities must immediately distribute all information in their possession that could help the public take preventative measures or reduce harm.
The right to participate in decision-making gives citizens the opportunity to express their concerns and opinions when authorities make plans that could affect the environment.
Finally, it places importance on environmental justice – a crucial factor in the drive to empower people to seek a good quality of life. It has the potential to provide socially excluded communities with the tools they need to influence and challenge decisions that will result in the degradation or destruction of the environment.
The final ratification process will be completed when the Tanaiste signs and deposits the ratification papers at the United Nations in New York. The government has stated its intention to do this prior to the opening of the Rio+20 conference on June 20th, 2012.