After 14 years of campaigning, the final ratification process for the Aarhus Convention has been completed with the deposition of Irish ratification papers at the United Nations in New York yesterday.
“The people of Ireland finally have the same environmental human rights as the rest of Europe” said Michael Ewing, speaking on behalf of the Environmental Pillar. He welcomed the 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 and training personnel in public authorities is therefore crucial for its effective implementation.
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.
“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 performing public administrative functions or providing public services,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. When 15 months have elapsed from the date of ratification (i.e. from Sept 29th 2013 onwards) any person may go to the Compliance Committee of the Convention to seek a remedy if the Government is not fulfilling its legal obligations.
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 proactively provide environmental information to the public and also inform them what information they hold, and how to access it. In emergency situations, such as a day of unusually bad air pollution, or a flood, 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 in the knowledge that the authorities must take their inputs into account, and give reasoned arguments for the decisions arrived at.
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. Access to justice must be easy, inexpensive, timely, and provide effective remedies.