Public Participation

The Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in environmental matters entered into force in 2001.  The convention was adopted under the UN/ECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) framework.  The convention has been considered a practical articulation of a right to a healthy environment as it provides that individuals and groups can require of states to provide information on environmental matters and must participate in the decision making on environment matters.

The convention contains many exceptions that, if read expansively, could defeat the goals of the convention. Notably requests for information can be refused, inter alia, when they are manifestly unreasonable or are formulated in too general a manner or when they adversely affect international relations, national defense of public security or when they adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial and industrial information.

The convention supports what has been called active and passive access to information. Passive access to information has to do with the right of the public to gain access to information at its request.  Active access to information speaks of a government’s duty to collect and disseminate information on its own initiative.

The convention establishes three types of public participation in decision making:
–public participation in decisions on specific activities
–public participant in plans, programs and policies relating to the environment
–public participation in the preparation of executive regulations and of legally binding instruments.

The general themes that run through public participation is that participation procedures should allow sufficient time to inform the public and for the public to prepare and participate effectively, that pubic participation should occur early in the process when all options are still open and that the state must take into account the results of public participation.

Access to justice is provided for in the convention when the request for information has been refused wrongfully, when it has been ignored, or when it has been answered inadequately. Under these circumstances, the convention provides that the public should have access to a review procedure before a court or an independent and impartial body. The procedure provided for must be free of charge or inexpensive.

The requirement of public participation has been included in other international instruments, such as the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. The purpose of Environmental Impact Assessment is to assess the environmental implications of development projects.  Impact assessments in a transboundary context have to do with the obligation of state that originates a development project to inform and consult with neighboring states on the possible effects of that project on their environment.