15 Oct 2021
Venue: Online | Webex
This side event to the seventh session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) was co-organized by Earthjustice, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the Geneva Environment Network.
About this Session
The accession of Guinea-Bissau at the coming 7th Meeting of the Parties of the Arhus Convention is a milestone. It opens the Convention to new realities relating to the situation of a developing country, with its specific challenges.
To become a Party to the Convention, Guinea Bissau has accomplished important steps domestically to be ready to implement the Convention’s provisions. This is an interesting journey from which lessons can be learned. What are the challenges to face when implementing the rights to environmental information, to public participation and to access to justice in environmental matters in the context of a developing country ?
How will the Convention and its bodies, the various stakeholders and Guinea Bissau intend to engage reciprocally for the implementation of the Conventions provisions ?
We took stock of this important opening of the Convention and identify the challenges the Aarhus community must be aware of in order to strengthen the implementation of environmental access rights in such a context.
Mario BATISTA CAMALA
Aarhus Convention Focal Point, Ministry of Environment and Biodiversity, Guinea-Bissau
Head of Section, Economic, Environment, Development and Digital Affairs, EU Delegation to the UN and other international organisation in Geneva
Compliance Committee, Secretariat of the Aarhus Convention
Bernardino DOS SANTOS
Gestion Durable et Valorisation de Ressources (GDVR)
Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) on behalf of the European ECO Forum
Diana RIZZOLIO (Co-Moderator)
Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network
Yves LADOR (Co-Moderator)
Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Earthjustice
In addition to the live WebEx and Facebook transmissions, the video is available on this webpage.
International Geneva is looking forward to welcome Guinea-Bissau next week for the Aarhus Convention MOP7.
Mario Batista CAMALA | Aarhus Convention Focal Point, Ministry of Environment and Biodiversity, Guinea-Bissau
Guinea-Bissau would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to share their reasons to join the Aarhus Convention. I would like to share a history with you.
When I joined the Ministry for the Environment, I was asked to compile the list of Conventions that our country had joined and was planning to join. That’s how I discovered the Aarhus Convention, and was thus named focal point for this Convention.
This Convention is very important to promote environmental democracy. Being part of the Convention allows everybody to participate actively and thus fosters democracy. With the Aarhus Convention, the State is not the only actor to make decisions on environmental matters. Other stakeholders, such as NGOs, can thus take part in decision-making. When you are part of Aarhus, the State is not sole organization able to make decisions and move things forward. NGOs can participate as additional stakeholders to manage the environment.
The Aarhus Convention is also the opportunity to allow for access to justice. I dedicated myself to this purpose of environmental democracy because I believe this information sharing and participation is essential.
Thus, I started the process with exchange between our Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We started exchanging with the Secretariat of the Aarhus Convention, which answered positively and indicated us which steps Guinea-Bissau needed to take to access the Convention.
Since June 2016, Guinea-Bissau participated in meetings with the Convention on the three pillars.
The Ministry also started exchanging with NGOs. And that’s why we have Mr. Dos Santos here with us today, as he participated in this process. The Ministry helped created NGOs for expert lawyers in environmental law, because we believe NGOs are necessary to support the government in protecting the environment.
These are the things that gave will and motivation to join the convention.
Guinea-Bissau becoming a Party to the Convention is a huge success for us. It is a dream come true to see that many stakeholders are involved and will be involved in promoting environmental democracy. We will happy to see these stakeholders have an equal voice with the State in the future. The State will not be solely responsible for the environment.
It is good to know that people who are affected by various actions, including that of the State, will have access to information and legal mechanisms to defend themselves, when their right to a healthy environment is violated.
Guinea-Bissau will also continue to promote the Convention in its region and discuss with colleagues from other countries, hoping they would follow our path, because it’s very interesting to have other stakeholders participating in the protection of the environment.
At the national level, Guinea-Bissau will continue to promote dialogue with NGOs, universities, and the media.
All stakeholders will thus be able to defend their rights and protect the environment side-by-side with the government.
At the international level, Guinea-Bissau will keep promoting the work of the Convention, as it brings benefits for all. Guinea-Bissau is dedicated to promoting the three pillars of the Aarhus Convention and to foster democratic practices in environmental management.
We will foster collaboration between NGOs in the pan-European region with those in Guinea-Bissau
to better understand how we can foster participation on environmental matters.
Guinea-Bissau will continue its efforts in that area and welcomes other NGOs to share their experience with NGOs in Guinea-Bissau.
Pascal DESLILE | Head of Section, Economic, Environment, Development and Digital Affairs, EU Delegation to the UN and other international organisation in Geneva
It’s a very important year for us, 20 years after the entry into force of the Aarhus Convention to have a first member from outside of the UNECE region and I like very much the title of this panel, welcoming Guinea Bissau. I also understand that other regions have decided to translate principle 10 of the Rio Summit of 1992 in different ways. For instance, our colleagues in Latin America and the Caribbean through ECLAC, the sister organization of the UNECE in their region, have developed a regional agreement that most of you know, the Escazu agreement.
We’re very happy that Guinea Bissau is about to do to join the Aarhus Convention. We are working already a lot with Guinea Bissau, and just three weeks ago, on 28t September, here in Geneva again together with the minister of environment of Guinea Bissau, we celebrated another milestone which, was Guinea Bissau joining the Water Convention of UNECE. We were in a workshop on the Senegalo-Mauritanian aquifer that also involved Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, where the EU DG Impact and international cooperation partnerships and DG Environment are working very closely with Guinea-Bissau. In the management of transboundary water bodies, aquifers or others, there is a very important element of environmental democracy of data production, of data disclosure and providing access to it.
As Mr Camala said very eloquently, environmental democracy makes for better policy making, and it makes for better policy making in general. It is especially important now, 30 years after Rio and 20 years almost after the entry into force of the Aarhus convention because we are facing a much more dire situation than 30 years ago.
I will not get back to this triple environmental crisis, climate change, biodiversity, pollution. We have got this week the high level CBD COP this week in China, UN Climate Change COP26 is coming up, all that means that today more than ever we need Aarhus, today more than ever we need to have more members accessing the Aahrus convention or equivalent bodies, because we need to manage a situation which is much more difficult.
As Mr Camala said, it is very important also especially from the perspective of Geneva to look at all these MEAs Aarhus, Water convention and others but Aarhus is extremely important because it’s also the interface between human rights and the environment. Last week, we had two breakthroughs at the Human Rights Council. We had the adoption of a resolution to set up a special Rapporteur on climate in the context of human rights, and we had also the resolution on the environment, which after years of discussions recognized a new human rights human rights to a healthy environment.
Guinea Bissau joining the Aarhus convention in this context is a really great example of how we can move forward together. So definitely we will be working with Guinea Bissau, as we’re working with all the parties.
Finn SCHUFFT | Compliance Committee, Secretariat of the Aarhus Convention
The secretariat is very happy and excited to welcome Guinea Bissau to the Aarhus Convention. and would like to congratulate it for being the very first country that is aiming to carry the principles of environmental democracy over to the African continent.
Guinea-Bissau has taken a number of important steps in preparation of its accession over the last years. To give a brief overview for those who are not familiar with this process, article 19 (3), of the Convention provides the possibility for any UN member state from outside the UNECE region to become parties to the convention. The procedure to be followed for an accession to the convention was established by the fourth meeting of the parties in its decision IV/5 from 2011, which provides that minimum legal and other appropriate measures to implement the convention should be in place so that the concerned state can comply with its obligations at the time of the entrant force of the convention. It also establishes that the secretary shall provide advisory support to the concerned state if so requested. Upon completion of the internal decision making process, at least eight months before the next meeting of the parties, the concerned state then submits a formal written expression of its intention to accede the convention to the meeting of the parties.
Guinea Bissau had first expressed its interest of accession for accession in 2016 which was reported by the secretariat to the 20th working group of the parties, that same year. Guinea Bissau has since taken further step in accordance with decision IV/5, including the approval of several relevant regulations, and then in 2018 the country submitted a formal written expression of its intention to accede the convention in accordance with paragraph 4c of decision IV/5.
Guinea Bissau has has gone through this procedure and is now ready to accede to the convention and it will then after its accession stand among the other 47 parties as a supporter of and potential leader in environmental democracy.
More concretely, what are the opportunities for Guinea Bissau and for any other state aiming to join the convention, that are created by this by this accession:
- The convention has been described as a key contributor to the protection of the environment, human health and sustainable development.
- The greater international visibility per country or region due to the progressive policies that the convention promotes.
- Being a priority to the convention also means access to a ready-to-use resource of best international practice on access to information participation and decision making and access to justice and environmental matters.
- Enjoy increased opportunities for receiving support such as capacity building and technical assistance both from the convention bodies but also from other international institutions.
- Opportunities for cooperation and exchange with other parties
Overall it really creates a foundation for sustainable economic development and also an attractive investment climate. Importantly the the support by the secretariat of course does not end with the accession of a party but is ongoing and there are other convention bodies such as the compliance committee that can provide further assistance and advice.
The accession by Guinea Bissau makes very clear that unlike what is sometimes stated, the convention is not only a regional European instrument, but it is actually a convention with global reach, and quite diverse membership. Among the parties are:
- Countries with the lowest GDP in the world and some with the highest GDP per capita.
- Countries with a broad range of political and legal traditions, for example it includes former soviet union countries, western democracies.
- Countries with federal systems, as well as those with national governments only.
- Countries concerned with a diverse range of environmental issues, from mining to oil and gas exploration, nuclear energy renewable energies, etc.
The convention really is a very diverse and a global instrument that is open for any UN member state to join. Interested states are not alone in this process and the secretariat is ready to assist any state that is interested to learn more about the convention.
Meetings of most bodies under the convention such the meeting of the parties and the working groups of the parties, task forces and some sessions of the compliance committee, are open to the public. Any interested state can therefore participate in these meetings to better understand how the convention and its different bodies work. and specifically the task forces. The task force on access to information, the task force on public participation in decision making, and the task force on access to justice may be of interest in this regard, since these are expert meetings that are made for open exchange of experiences from different states, both parties to the convention and other states.
To learn more about the Convention there’s also the publicly available guidance and other materials:
- the Aarhus convention compliance guide
- the Maastricht recommendations on promoting effective public participation in environmental matters
- the relevant findings of the Aarhus convention compliance committee
Lastly, the secretariat can always recommend suitable experts in the field of the convention to an interested state.
To conclude we really see a worldwide momentum for the recognition of the principles of environmental democracy at the moment, with the entry into force of the Escazu agreement earlier this year, for the Latin American and the Caribbean region and now the the Aarhus convention being carried over to the African continent by Guinea Bissau. We at the secretariats stand ready to support not only Guinea Bissau and the other future or current parties to the convention, but also really any country that is considering joining this growing international community, and we encourage any interested young member state to approach us.
Bernardino DOS SANTOS | Gestion Durable et Valorisation de Ressources (GDVR)
I would like to thank the government of Guinea-Bissau and its focal point, Mr. Camala, who asked us to accompany them in the accession process to the Aarhus Convention. I would also like to thank the Secretariat of the Convention who supported us financially to participate in the process as observer.
We took part in several meetings in Geneva and at the previous MOP in Montenegro. When we were invited, we were very interested because we saw that environmental democracy, public participation, and access to justice could help us. Without access to information, public participation and access to justice, it is not worth protecting this territory.
Our NGO represents a civil society faction which works on water, sanitation and climate change issues.
We took on the role to rearrange all the NGO who work in this sector.
In concrete terms, we participate every time the government has projects in this sector. We support the government to establish public participation and inform the population. For example, if there is a bauxite prospecting project in a forest region and populations must be delocalized, we work with the stakeholders who finance the project to determine how this delocalization should be conducted.
We also work with the public to explain who they can benefit from the project and we take their opinions into account, for example regarding traditional sites such as cemetery. We also worked on a project related to electric infrastructure which affected and relocated many people throughout the country. In that context, we also used public participation to determine benefits and compensations. We also work for forest conservation.
For example, we have a project to restore and conserve 750 thousand hectares of forest and 500 thousand hectares of mangroves. In that context, the governments is very open to discuss with us how this should be done and how we can create synergies.
Our lawyers also help the population have access to justice when they have complaints. Even if financing actors or the government might close their eyes, we also keep ours open. Thus, these three instruments are extremely useful to NGOs in Guinea-Bissau.
Human rights and the environment are inextricably linked. In Guinea-Bissau, 90% of the population is living in rural zones and 70% of the GDP comes from agriculture. Therefore, we pay particular attention to these two aspects. We know we can count on the other Parties to the Convention and NGOs in Europe to help us address future challenges that will come up.
Jeremy WATES | Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) on behalf of the European ECO Forum
It’s been really nice to listen to the proceeding speakers, and especially Bernardino now just describing the work that they’re doing there in Guinea-Bissau. I’m really happy to congratulate Guinea Bissau on the progress made and now being on the brink of becoming a party to the Convention. I am really delighted that we reached this point, while also having some criticisms about the fact it has taken us 20 years to reach this point.
Pascal has very well reminded us of the scale of the challenges that are facing us, on climate, on biodiversity, on pollution, and whichever front we look at, the warnings become more and more stark. To actually take on those challenges and deal with them, we will need to undergo major transformations in the way we do things, the way we house ourselves, feed ourselves, warm ourselves, clothe ourselves the way we move around and so on. Now obviously the changes will be different according to what the starting point is.
As Finn has already pointed out, there are very wide differences across the Aarhus parties in terms of levels of economic development and so on, and also in this context, levels of over consumption. There will need to be changes, and to achieve those changes, it really will need a kind of whole of society effort, and that’s why the Aarhus Convention is so relevant and more important than ever, in order to engage the whole of society, not just in the sense of engage governments, telling society what it needs to do, but society being very much involved in the decisions that are taken, and feeling a sense of ownership and belonging so it’s a really key issue. These procedural environmental rights are just as important as the substantive policies.
Finn gave us an a a very nice introduction to the background of article 19 (3) and decision IV/5 which was adopted in 2011. I’d like to briefly mention there was a period in between that, when article 19 (3) was included in the text by the negotiators, allowing the possibility for non-UNECE member states to become parties. This was something really new for UNECE treaties, the conventions and the protocols. The practice with the previous four conventions and their protocols haved been to limit participation as parties to member states of the UNECE, and the special case of regional economic integration organization, which was what the EU was, how it’s described.
The logic of taking that extra step and making the convention open to others outside the UNECE region was inspired by the idea that the rights that the convention sought to guarantee should be universally enjoyed. And that this will be a way to broaden its impact, at the very least to allow some neighboring countries to benefit from joining the convention at the most to enable the Aarhus convention to become a de facto global instrument. There were two other ideas that were also floating around in those early years in the early 2000s,
which in order to realize that goal of everyone everywhere being able to enjoy those rights those principle 10 rights and one of those was the idea of a global treaty and the other was the idea of other regional treaties.
The global treaty idea only got as far as the non-binding Bali guidelines that were adopted in 2010, far more detailed than the original paragraph on principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on environment and development, but as i say still non-binding. The idea of other regional treaties did however take off in the Latin American Caribbean region, leading to the 2018 Escazu agreement, which has been mentioned entered into force earlier this year. The success of Eskazu in a way diminish the prospects of a global treaty, which were never very strong because you had two quite big regions of the world, the UNECE region and the ECLAC region, both having their own treaties. It’s quite hard to see the rest of the world being covered by other regional treaties so acceding to Aarhus remains a very practical uinteresting possibility for many countries, because you have a ready-made instrument and don’t need to go through a long process of negotiating and drafting something new.
When the negotiating parties introduced article 19 (3), I don’t think they quite realize the implications of those last eight words upon approval by the meeting of the parties. As late as 2005, when there was a decision of the meeting of the parties it was decision II/9 expressly about this issue of non-UNECE member states joining. Iit was very much the signal that was given in that decision, was and here I quote that “accession to the convention and expression of intent to accede the convention is a sovereign decision in that state the approval of the meeting of the parties should not be interpreted as implying a substantive review by the meeting of the parties of that state’s national legal system and administrative practice” and the mood at that time, back in 2005, was very much it would be just great to have countries in and why should we make a difference between a country from outside the region as compared with countries like Uzbekistan or Russia which had not signed and would be able to just simply get their ambassador to walk across the road in New york and deposit the instrument, and they would become parties so there was a kind of feeling that it wasn’t really the intention to make these very different. That changed and Finn described the content of the decision that was taken six years later in 2011, where the MOP set out a much more clear and tight procedure.
We were not entirely happy with the process and we were concerned that this procedure would be off-putting for prospective parties and indeed it may have been off-putting to some prospective parties because it requires the country to maintain the political will to join overa prolonged period whereas for a UNECE member state
the government and the parliament of the day can simply go ahead even if the next government in parliament would not have, and then it would be in. Because of that, I have the greatest of respect for Guinea Bissau for the fact that it did stay the course over, well over a decade if i’m not mistaken. There has been that sort of continuity of resolve.
The NGO community in Europe and central asia will be very happy to coordinate and collaborate with our counterparts in Guinea-Bissau and exchange experiences on exercising rights under the convention. I hope the convention will prove as useful to civil society and Guinea-Bissau as it has in Europe. In Europe and Central Asia we do have many problems with implementation of the convention, and we also have mechanisms under the convention to help us address that, in particular compliance mechanism. Thee key point is that things would be a lot worse without it and we’re very glad to have the convention. We’re very glad to be as we hope next week welcoming Guinea Bissau into the family of parties to the convention.
To be completed soon…
As an NGO, what are your expectations from the other NGOs who will be collaborating with in the future through the Convention?
Bernardino DOS SANTOS. First of all, we welcome the government’s action to facilitate collaboration between NGOs. To come to your question, we need to foster dialogue, and this goes both ways.
Our collaboration with other NGO aims to improve our practice on the ground. Every NGO can benefit from this dialogue. Realities are different for each NGOs, but when it comes to the environment, we are all facing the same planetary issues. Thus, we can benefits from practices that proved useful elsewhere.
We have started to work on changing national laws to fit with the Convention. The government said they would share information about the Convention and advocate to parliamentarians and other politicians so that the principles can be adopted.