Adriaan Oudeman (b. 1950) trained as a chemist and chemical engineer at Delft University of Technology, gaining an MSc in 1973. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Calgary, specialising in organometallic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance measurements (PhD 1978). Oudeman worked briefly at a commercial laboratory in Calgary and at the University of Amsterdam, before joining the Netherlands Directorate-General for the Environment in 1979, where he became a specialist in toxic substances and pesticides registration. He set up a registration system for new chemical substances — a precursor of the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation — in the Netherlands. For this purpose he was stationed for several years at the Netherlands Institute for Health and Environment. In 1992 he joined the Directorate for International Affairs, with a focus on environmental cooperation in United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) countries and Eastern Europe. In this capacity Oudeman served two terms on the Board of Directors of the REC.
What are some of your early impressions of the REC and its development over the years, and how did you become involved with the organisation?
My experience with the REC covers a period of some 20 years, from roughly 1995 until today. This is a period during which I worked with the REC in different capacities as a representative of the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment — now the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. Thus I can offer a bird’s-eye view over time — but not over space.
In 1992 I was up for a change of career within the ministry. Until that time I worked as an expert on chemical substances and pesticides control. In 1992 I entered the international environmental arena — as this is called — and the new thing there was establishing cooperation with Eastern Europe. Like many of my colleagues, I had never visited that region or worked with colleagues from that region. Also, 1992 was the year of the Rio Conference on Environment and Development. The Netherlands had apparently agreed to take the lead in working out Principle 10 of the Rio 1992 Declaration, which spells out citizens’ environmental rights and obligations [see note below*--Ed.]. We organised a first meeting in Geneva with the help of the UNECE, and I met the REC during this process.
What role did the REC play in the Aarhus Convention deliberations? And what is the convention’s importance today?
In the first instance our aim was to establish guidelines on Principle 10, but at the Sofia Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” in 1995 the ambition was upgraded to strive for a full-fledged convention, which later became the Aarhus Convention. The initial success of such a thing would of course depend on the number of countries willing to sign at Aarhus, and a few months before the meeting it didn’t seem to be heading for a landslide victory. National languages appeared to be the major obstacle. The text of the convention needed to be available in each country’s national language — or languages — well in advance of May 1998 for most ministers to obtain the mandate to sign. It was here that the REC proved invaluable: before we knew it, the organisation had translated the text and made it available to various administrations in Central and Eastern Europe for correction and approval. More than 40 European countries eventually signed the convention at Aarhus!
Now, has the Aarhus Convention made a difference? In my view it was an expression of changes already in the air. It was sown in fruitful earth, so to say, at that particular period in time. The UNECE was successful in bringing the convention to life by adding a protocol on pollution registers, amending the convention to include genetically modified organisms, and setting up an effective compliance regime. In the course of time the REC built up expertise and authority on the subject: it organised workshops, roundtables and conferences, and involved local governments and citizens groups in the region. Not being a legal expert I gradually lost sight of all the ins and outs of the Aarhus Convention. My feeling is that the convention is nowadays well established and recognised in most countries, but in less turbulent waters. It certainly helped focus debate on issues of transparency and citizens’ right to access environmental information in times of change.
How has the REC changed over the years in response to the changes happening around it?
My impression is that the REC itself has moved along and is nowadays focusing more on the economics and even the financing of environmental protection. It has been able to establish good relations with a number of international companies that are also active in Central and South Eastern Europe. In my view there is some scope for furthering relations with the banking sector in terms of administering green funds. I think the REC has valuable expertise for setting up projects of interest to these parties. Thinking, for instance, of opportunities for insulation and “zero-carbon” buildings, a lot of work remains to be done.
Over time the character of the REC has slowly changed, as we all do, and such changes are most clearly discernible in retrospect. When I came into closer contact with the REC it had already survived the diseases of infancy and was celebrating its fifth anniversary. In those early years the REC was able to attract the brightest young people from the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, and often I had the feeling of being on a university campus — a very inspiring, innovative and informal atmosphere. Later, when the requirements for funding and project acquisition became more stringent, the REC changed into a hybrid of a multilateral organisation and a consultancy. It was once again able to play a quintessential role in helping introduce the environmental acquis to countries acceding to the European Union. Again, one of the strongest points was being able to speak the languages of the region.
What role do you see for the REC in the coming years, either regionally or globally?
There is less momentum at present behind EU accession, and various crises are visible in Europe and its environs. Let us hope for a turn for the better and that the REC may continue to help improve the living environment in the region of Central and South Eastern Europe. Of course, the REC’s message and expertise are of value beyond the region, and some outreach may pay off. Over a longer period of time the REC might have to adapt itself again or reinvent itself. May it stay close to its mission and the region in which it was born.
* Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”