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UN treaty on access to environment information enters into force

UN treaty on access to environment information enters into force

A new international law - described by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as "the most ambitious venture in environmental democracy undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations" - entered into force today following its ratification by 17 members of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).

The ECE said today in a statement that the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters - known as the Aarhus Convention after the Danish city where it was adopted in June 1998 - sought to strengthen the role of members of the public and environmental organizations in protecting the environment.

Through its recognition of citizens' rights to information, participation and justice, the treaty aims specifically to allow members of the public greater access to data held by public authorities, provide an opportunity for people to express their opinions and concerns on environmental matters and ensure that decision makers take due account of these, provide the public with access to review procedures when their rights to information and participation have been breached, and in some cases to challenge more general violations of environmental law.

"In practical terms, this means, for instance, that local residents must be given a say in new road schemes or in the siting of household-waste incinerators," the ECE said. "Members of the public also have a right to know what state their environment is in and, in some circumstances, to sue governments or polluters that attempt to cover up environmental disasters."

Welcoming the high level of support shown for the Convention by eastern European and Central Asian countries, the Director of the UNECE Environment Division, Kaj Bärlund, said he hoped several western countries would ratify the Convention before the first meeting of the Parties, provisionally scheduled for autumn 2002. "Despite the fact that western countries have generally been slower to ratify the Convention than their eastern counterparts, it is clear from their warm messages of support that they are working hard on their national legislation to be able to ratify the Convention," he said.

Mr. Bärlund said the delay was an indication that the Convention was sufficiently progressive to prompt important improvements even in some of the most well-established western democracies. "The eastern countries may have a different legal tradition, but the early ratification by many of these countries is a sign of change," he said. "It shows that they have opened the door to a new culture of democracy and transparency."