The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its first-ever access to information policy last week. The pilot policy—which will be revised after its first year—aims to “enhance transparency and openness” in the organization’s work. But despite its noble aspirations, the policy falls far short of providing true transparency.
More than 70 percent of Samarinda’s land (the capital of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province) is allocated to mining concessions, and little information is provided to citizens on companies’ compliance to safety and environmental health rules.
In the hopes of preventing mining fatalities, the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), a group of Indonesian NGOs and community organizations, requested information from the Indonesian government to determine what companies were doing to mitigate mines’ environmental and health impacts. This process prompted the STRIPE project, which will focus on building strong civil society coalitions to advocate for corporate disclosure of information.
Laws that ensure access to information provide citizens with the right to crucial facts and data, including those about natural resources that are critical to livelihoods. These transparency laws are the cornerstone of good governance, which all governments have a duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. With the goal to improve governance, The Access Initiative (TAI) successfully influenced a model African Union access-to-information law, as well as a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) access-to-information policy.
WRI is the Secretariat of TAI, the largest network in the world dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.
International and regional institutions, such as UNEP and the African Union, have wide-reaching effects that shape national policies. However, without robust access-to-information policies, UNEP and the African Union lacked practical means of ensuring that their decisions consider sustainable development concerns and the interests of the poor.
WRI has a long history of shaping legal, institutional, and practical reforms to improve transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability around environmental decision-making. This history lay the groundwork for WRI and TAI partners to effectively campaign for UNEP and African Union reforms.
Before Rio+20, WRI and TAI partners presented strong arguments to delegates and helped draft language, which were incorporated into UNEP’s final decision to adopt an “access to information” policy. Simultaneously, WRI worked with partners to review and comment on an African Union model access-to-information law. WRI submitted official comments and provided recommendations to reduce exceptions to the law and include new provisions to better guide implementation and promotion of the policy. The majority of our specific recommendations were adopted in the final model law.
Today, UNEP is finalizing its access-to-information policy and working with WRI to enhance stakeholder participation in decision-making. When the policy is finalized and implemented, UNEP will be one of the most transparent and inclusive organizations in the United Nations system.
The African Union (AU) passed a strong model law, which provides a template for all African countries to write access-to-information acts. It provides legislators a tool to address issues specific to the African context, such as requirements to improve record-keeping and provisions for oversight and monitoring by an independent enforcement body. Currently, of the 54 African countries, only 13 have access-to-information laws. This new, model law encourages the 41 other countries to pass similar legislation.
WRI and TAI are building on our success with UNEP and the AU in new ways, such as working to influence the Open Government Partnership on high-level transparency and accountability policies.
Despite its small size, Ecuador is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. Political instability, though, has led to weak environmental laws and few opportunities for citizens to participate in decisions about the management of the country’s rich natural resources. A new law now requires the government to consult citizens on environmental matters. It’s the result of a long process undertaken by WRI and Ecolex, a non-profit organization in Ecuador focused on sustainable development. Together we identified weaknesses in Ecuador’s laws regulating public access to environmental information, participation, and justice. This assessment was followed by multi-stakeholder workshops which led to the creation of draft legislation approved by the Ministry of Environment and signed into law by the president.
For eight years, WRI and 160 partners in 40 countries have been working to open up the channels of information on environmental decision-making. This effort – The Access Initiative – is the largest global action network dedicated to ensuring that people have the right and the ability to influence decisions about the natural resources on which their communities depend.
How does it work? Coalitions of civil society groups assess the state of access to
information, public participation, and justice in their nation. Gaps in laws,
institutions, and practices are identified. The coalitions then engage their
government in a dialogue and develop campaigns to bring about reform. It isn’t easy, especially in Southeast Asia where leaders have long kept
political control through information control. Eight years of work by The Access Initiative, however, came to fruition recently when Indonesia
enacted a new Freedom of Information Act. The Access Initiative also
played a strong role in ensuring Thailand’s new constitution enshrines the right of the public to have information about new development projects that affect the environment and to participate in decisions concerning such projects. Rights to remedies are provided when the government acts in breach of these provisions.
In a nationwide referendum in early 2009, Bolivia overhauled its federal constitution. Among its sweeping changes are new legal rights for citizens to take part in public policy planning and to be consulted and informed on decisions that may affect environmental quality and natural resource use. The constitution also establishes the country’s first environmental and agricultural court, giving citizens and communities a forum to air grievances.
These provisions are largely the result of work by WRI and PRODENA, one of Bolivia’s oldest environmental advocacy organizations. “Using a toolkit WRI developed, together we identified weaknesses in Bolivia’s proposed new constitution regulating public access to environmental information, participation, and justice,” explains Lalanath de Silva, director of WRI’s Access Initiative (TAI). PRODENA is a member of TAI, the world’s largest network of civil society organizations working to ensure that people have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities. Based on these assessments, and with WRI support, PRODENA advocated tirelessly for the inclusion of such rights, which Bolivia’s government adopted into the text of the constitution.
“It’s a great result,” continues de Silva, “the type we envisioned when we launched The Access Initiative a decade ago.”
United Nations Environment Programme’s Governing Council adopts guidelines for national legislation on access in environmental matters
UNEP’s Governing Council (GC) reached a major milestone in implementing Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Development and Environment when delegates agreed to adopt its guidelines for national legislation on access to information, public participation, and access to justice.
Principle 10’s guidelines are fundamental pillars of good environmental governance. They cover critical areas, including freedom of information laws, state of the environment reporting, emergency planning and response, project planning, and environmental harms. Adoption of the guidelines will have several significant impacts:
- The decision clarifies minimum legal standards for implementation of Principle 10.
- The decision requires UNEP’s Executive Director to assist countries in implementing programs and policies around access — and thus ensures that UNEP has a mandate to continue advancing the implementation of Principle 10 at the national level.
- The GC’s formal adoption of the guidelines will be critical in strengthening the case that officials and civil society can make for open information systems and decision-making processes.
WRI’s Access Team and partners played a significant role in leading the push to convince GC members to formally adopt the guidelines, rather than simply “note” them. Staff wrote online articles informing access proponents of the opportunity, and WRI sent staff and international partners to three UNEP meetings. WRI Staff Member Carole Excell participated in the Nairobi Expert Meeting in November of 2009 and played an important role in helping revise the guidelines.
Perhaps most critically, WRI successfully helped influence the U.S. delegation to the GC through communications with the USEPA and the U.S. Department of State. To our knowledge, no other U.S.-based NGO pressed the delegation on the issue of adoption. Ultimately reversing its earlier position, the U.S. delegation pushed strongly for adoption of the guidelines and successfully persuaded holdout countries to move toward a consensus for adoption.
UNEP’s poverty and environment division thanked WRI for its help in reaching this critical milestone.
Communities dependent on natural resources have long faced injustice in both the Philippines and India. Now, thanks to the work of WRI and its national partners in The Access Initiative, victims of pollution and environmental degradation have a better chance in getting redress before special environmental courts and tribunals.
India: The National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) of India is an administrative court that hears appeals against project approvals where an Environmental impact Assessment was legally required and which had a longstanding reputation for almost always siding with developers against communities. TAI partners challenged several NEAA decisions before the New Delhi High Court and were victorious. Not only did the Court agree with the criticisms leveled against the NEAA, but TAI’s efforts made it clear that the institution needed far reaching reform.
Independently, the Ministry of Forests and Environment introduced a Green Tribunal Bill in the Indian Congress which sought to abolish the NEAA and establish a green tribunal that would hear environmental disputes throughout the country. Concerned that some clauses would limit the scope of environmental dispute resolution, TAI partners successfully developed a critique of the bill and a nationwide campaign for its reform, resulting in ministerial level meetings and the incorporation of most of TAI’s proposed revisions in the final bill, passed in May 2010.
Philippines: In April 2010, the Philippine Supreme Court adopted official “procedures for environmental cases” to be used for civil, criminal and special civil actions brought before the country’s regional, metropolitan and municipal trial courts. This guidance has enabled the Philippines newly established network of environmental courts - the most extensive in any country worldwide - to avoid long-winded and expensive cases. The newly established procedures include provisions to simplify trials, make them speedier, and lower their cost, including by awarding fee waivers for the poor. They also enable courts to monitor and ensure enforcement of judgments.
TAI Philippines, a coalition of NGOs led by the Ateneo de Manila School of Government, drafted the groundbreaking “bench book” for the Philippines’ new environmental courts, supported by WRI which provided finance and training support. In an early demonstration of the effect of these new procedures, plaintiffs in 150 separate villages are filing a collective suit to compel the government to plan water use in the face of climate change.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act, passed by the Indian Parliament in May 2010, established a court to deal with environmental disputes throughout the country. Though hailed as a progressive mechanism for victims of pollution and environmental degradation to seek redress, the government delayed putting in place the needed infrastructure, staff, and judges for over a year. The deadlock was broken when environmental groups that are part of The Access Initiative in India took the issue to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor, forcing the government to implement the tribunal.
This turn of events underlines the influence and effectiveness of The Access Initiative (TAI) which is co-led by WRI. Established in 1999, TAI is the largest network of civil society organizations in the world dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities. TAI-India has become a visible and influential player in India’s environmental governance arena.
Following the Supreme Court’s intervention, India’s National Green Tribunal started functioning on July 4, 2011, hearing thirty-five cases in the first two weeks. TAI India members won another victory when they brought to the media’s attention a stipulation in the Act requiring petitioners, when filing for environmental damages, to pay one percent of the compensation claimed. Following media coverage, the Minister for Environment and Forests, immediately withdrew the regulation requiring fees, which would have deterred poor people from seeking the tribunal’s help.
Indian citizens will now have unfettered access to an environmental court – an important step in advancing environmental rights in the world’s largest democracy. Although the court now functions in only New Delhi, the government plans to expand its presence to five other locations.
Giving citizens a voice is essential to environmental and development progress - from reducing greenhouse gases to curbing deforestation to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
At the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), nine Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) governments took a giant step in this direction. Together, they pledged to begin negotiations leading to a groundbreaking Regional Convention that will enshrine public rights of access to environmental information, public participation, and justice.
As coordinator of The Access Initiative (TAI), an international network of hundreds of civil society groups, WRI played a pivotal role in the agreement by Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. Since then, Ecuador and Brazil have also joined the pledge.
Building Environmental Democracy
The rights of all citizens to information, participation, and justice on environmental issues that affect their lives were enshrined at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in the form of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. But in many countries, these principles have not been converted into practice, including in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Much of the region is plagued by escalating conflicts over natural resources, mining, and new infrastructure such as highways and dams. In such situations, legally binding international agreements play an important role in strengthening citizens’ access rights, driving the development of national legislation and practices.
Making Change Happen: WRI’s Role
With Rio+20 providing an ideal launch pad for such an agreement, WRI created an international task force to promote a LAC Regional Principle 10 Convention.
In our role as TAI Secretariat, we made submissions to the United Nations that were reflected in the draft declaration by heads of state. WRI and our partners also engaged LAC governments and regional bodies such as the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, both of which declared their support.
Following our high-level advocacy efforts, Jamaica and Chile took the lead in publicly calling for a regional, binding legal instrument to implement access rights.
The nine countries announced their agreement at a TAI event at the Rio+20 summit, underlining our key role. Chile hosted the regional governments in November 2012 to develop a road map to achieve the convention.
A regional convention in Latin America, following on one in Europe, will also promote the spread of access rights worldwide. TAI seeks to scale such regional models into global learning and action.