The Aarhus Convention is an environmental treaty that turns the 1992 Rio Declaration’s vague commitments to the principles of access into specific legal obligations. Since its negotiation in 1998 as a regional agreement among the countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), 24 nations in Europe and Central Asia have become Parties to the treaty, and 40 have signed it. It entered into force in October 2001, and is now open to signature by all nations of the world.
The Convention not only recognizes the basic right of every person of present and future generations to a healthy environment but also specifies how the authorities at all levels will provide fair and transparent decision-making processes, access to information, and access to redress. For example, the Convention requires broad access to information about the state of air and atmosphere, water, land, and biological diversity; information about influences on the environment such as energy, noise, development plans, and policies; and information about how these influences affect human health and safety. A person does not need to prove “legal standing” to request information or to comment on official decisions that affect the environment, and the Convention requires that governments respond to requests for information from any person of any nationality within one month.
The Aarhus Convention also gives citizens, organizations, and governments the right to investigate and seek to curtail pollution caused by public and private entities in other countries that are parties to the treaty. For example, a Hungarian public interest group could demand information on airborne emissions from a Czech factory. For most signatory countries, meeting the standards of the treaty will require authorities to change how they disseminate environmental information to the public, to create new systems of environmental reporting by businesses and government, to improve the practice of public notification and comment, and to change judicial processes.
Adopting and implementing the Aarhus Convention’s principles beyond its European base could provide a straightforward route to better access at a global level. But while there is growing interest in endorsing the Aarhus principles in Latin America, southern Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region, many countries perceive the treaty’s concepts of democratic decision-making about the environment as too liberal or threatening to commercial confidentiality. Some countries are also reluctant to adopt a treaty that they did not have a chance to shape initially. Nonetheless, the Aarhus Convention stands as an example of real progress toward a global understanding of what access is and how it can be manifested in national laws and practices.