Promote Progress of
Public Participation in Central
and Eastern Europe
“Citizens have a right to voice their concerns in matters affecting them. Participation helps to create more informed government decision making by incorporating diverse opinions, values and ideas and by resulting in direct, immediate knowledge of the environmental conditions from the community and citizens. Public involvement improves the quality of decision making, raises citizen awareness of environmental issues and increases public understanding of projects involved in decision making. It also helps to defuse conflict or opposition to particular government actions and builds broad-based consensus for environmental programmes and more support for their implementation.”
— REC website archive
This was one of the REC’s first projects, building on the results of former projects such as the development and publication of manuals on public participation in environmental decision making (in English and in local languages); the delivery of trainings in the countries of the CEE region; and the preparation of a status report on public participation for the Sofia Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” in 1995. The project was implemented at a time when the Aarhus Convention was drafted (1996–1998) and it contributed support for the negotiation stage until the convention was adopted in June 1998.
The goals of the project were to:
- strengthen the presence of public participation issues on the international environmental agenda and facilitate meaningful dialogue and discussion about public participation issues among environmental stakeholders in the CEE region at both national and international level;
- provide motivation for the continued improvement of public participation practices in the countries of the region by advising policy makers to adopt and implement more effective public participation instruments, and by supporting NGOs and the public to hold decision makers accountable for their obligations and commitments;
- support the process of developing effective public participation systems at international level that incorporate a strong CEE voice and clear perspectives; and
- increase awareness among environmental stakeholders in the CEE region of European and other international standards in public participation, and provide incentives and support for approximating to these standards.
Sub-project 1, Monitoring Progress in Public Participation, focused on monitoring and evaluating the state of public participation by examining trends, problems and future possibilities. An independent assessment was prepared for 15 CEE countries, along with a sub-regional summary report that put practical tools in the hands of policy makers and NGOs in order to evaluate future progress. The assessment publication, Doors to Democracy: A Pan-European Assessment of Current Trends and Practices in Public Participation in Environmental Matters, was a policy document that provided a comparative, independent analysis of the status of public participation practices in the 15 CEE countries. It directed the attention of policy makers and NGOs at national and international level to problems, needs and good practices related to public participation.
The study was one part of what became a four-volume publication that included regional and country reports on five newly independent states (NIS), 11 Western European countries, 15 CEE countries and a pan-European assessment. The entire series, as well as the pan-European assessment, was prepared within the project through collaboration between the REC and partners such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Ecopravo-Lviv. The series of assessments served as input to the joint session of NGOs and ministers, “Strengthening Participatory Democracy for Sustainable Development”, during the Fourth Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe”, held on June 23–25, 1998, in Aarhus, Denmark, and the findings were presented to inspire debate. The special session was initiated by NGOs and the REC on the occasion of the adoption of the Aarhus Convention. It was chaired by Bedrich Moldan, then chair of the REC’s Board of Directors, which lent important visibility to the REC.
As an official background document, the REC also prepared an evaluation of the implementation of the Sofia Guidelines in the CEE and NIS region, which was also distributed at the Aarhus conference and offered for use to the UNECE. Information on the adoption of the Aarhus Convention, on the results of the joint session of NGOs and ministers, and on the situation of public participation in the individual CEE countries, was published and disseminated in local-language supplements to REC local bulletins in 15 CEE countries.
Sub-project 2, Promoting the Public Participation Convention, facilitated the process of drafting and implementing an international convention on access to environmental information, public participation and access to justice (later called the Aarhus Convention), and increased public and NGO involvement in this process. This resulted in the active participation of REC experts in the work of the UNECE intergovernmental working group established for drafting the Aarhus Convention, and in their contribution of recommendations for the content of the instrument. In addition, a series of roundtable meetings in 15 CEE and six NIS countries, organised by the REC with the help of local partners, promoted dialogue between NGOs, government officials, parliamentarians and journalists; informed them about the drafting process; and collected their comments and proposals about the content of the draft convention. The roundtables also contributed an analysis of the legislative framework and practices in respective CEE and NIS countries and the possible impact of the implementation of the Aarhus Convention in these countries. These were used to help formulate country positions in the convention negotiations, increased the transparency of the international negotiations, and were later of value in preparing for ratification and implementation in those countries.
In the years following the implementation of this project, the REC has continued to support environmental democracy and the ratification and implementation of the Aarhus Convention through many different projects in the CEE region and in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA), including EU and non-EU countries. The REC has also played an active role in several pan-European Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) and EU initiatives, as well as global initiatives such as the promotion of Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration in other regions, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean. Considerable work has also been done on integrating the Aarhus provisions and principles in decision-making processes in different sectors of the environment, such as water and waste management, energy issues and climate change.
Contributor: Magdolna Toth-Nagy