The Aarhus Convention Test: Environmentalists and Freedom of Information in Post-Soviet States
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Tatiana R. Zaharchenko, Visiting Scholar, Environmental law Institute, Washington, D.C., and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, argued that environmental activism may be a key to increased transparency and democracy in the post-Soviet states. Zaharchenko discussed the role of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters—commonly known as the Aarhus Convention—in the transformation of post-Soviet states into more transparent and open societies. The Convention is designed to ensure that governments provide procedures and guarantees concerning the citizens' rights listed in its title, including the right to access environmental information from state agencies.
Zaharchenko explained that environmental activism—especially following the Chernobyl disaster—played an important role in promoting legal reform and the development of civil society in the late Soviet period. Pressure from citizens and NGOs led leaders of the Soviet Union and, later, its successor states to adopt liberal legislation on access to information, particularly on environmental information. Nevertheless, according to Zaharchenko, successful applications for information remained rare and the legal framework for obtaining information remained insufficient.
The Aarhus Convention has received outstanding attention in the post-Soviet countries, in part because it represents a symbol, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it, of "environmental democracy." Zaharchenko noted that when the Convention came into force in 2001, 11 of the first 17 states that ratified it were former Soviet republics. Eventually, all the Soviet successor states except for Russia and Uzbekistan became parties to the Convention. According to Zaharchenko, some principles of the Aarhus Convention did not differ greatly from the spirit of laws already on the books in many ex-Soviet states. However, legislation before the Convention gave citizens a right to information, but it neither obliged the state to provide information on request nor specified mechanisms for the provision of information. She argued that the former Soviet states party to the Aarhus Convention have begun to address these holes in their legislation and some of them introduced important implementation measures.
Zaharchenko believes that the Aarhus Convention is an important tool for promoting political reform in formerly Communist countries. She argued that the Convention promotes change at the top by requiring governments to enact legislation and introduce necessary mechanisms for access to environmental information, and facilitates grassroots activism by ensuring that NGOs have access to information. She acknowledged that most of the post-Soviet states that participate in the Aarhus Convention are by no means democratic, open societies, but she argued that in many of these states, the Ministry of the Environment is becoming the most open and democratic arm of the government. Zaharchenko hopes that the progress that has been made in these states will eventually spread to other areas of their political system as both state officials and citizens become familiar with the traditions and norms of democratic governance.