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Putting Rio Principle 10 into action

On 6 October 2015 UNEP published a guide entitled Putting Rio Principle 10 into action: an implementation guide for the UNEP Bali Guidelines for the development of national legislation on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters (“the Guide”)

What is the background to the Guide?

Principle 10 was adopted 1992 as a part of the Rio Declaration, stating that “Environmental issues are best handled with 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”.

Principle 10 inspired the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, to adopt the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (“the Aarhus Convention”) which has had a profound impact on environmental law in both the UK and the EU. That Convention is signed up to by all EU states, the EU itself and about 20 other countries in and around Europe. The Aarhus Convention is discussed in the Guide as being a “model for the rest of the world

In February 2010 UNEP adopted the ‘Guidelines for the Development of National Legislation on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters’ (The “Bali Guidelines”). The Bali Guidelines seek to assist countries in filling possible gaps in their respective relevant national legislation, and where relevant and appropriate in sub-national legal norms and regulations at the state or district levels, etc., ensuring consistency at all levels to facilitate broad access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.

The Guide follows on from the Guidelines offering a practical tool to assist in implementing the provisions of Principle 10.

What does the Guide cover?

The Guide coves the so-called three pillars: access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

Who are they aimed at?

The Guide is intended to be a practical tool for the use of governments, major groups and stakeholders, legal professionals, implementing authorities and others engaged in the application of Rio Principle 10.

How likely are they to be successful in achieving their objectives?

Well as noted above the Aarhus Convention is an example of what can be achieved. The Guide also notes that in the UN Economic Region for Latin America and the Caribbean more than 20 states have embarked on something similar to the Aarhus Convention. Whether this is as successful as the Aarhus Convention remains to be seen. In Europe the fact that the EU is itself a party and has implemented some of its provisions into Directives that have effect in national jurisdictions (albeit only within the EU) has been important in giving it teeth. See further my article “The influence of the Aarhus Convention on EU Environmental Law” J.P.L. 2013, 12, 1496-1512.

What does all this mean on a practical level for lawyers and their clients?

Its main use will likely come in countries not covered by the Aarhus Convention where environmental issues arise. The extent to which the document will influence the law of these countries remains to be seen. The growing body of international instruments covering Rio Principle 10 raises an interesting question of when such principles become part of customary international law.

How does all this fit in with other developments in this area of the law?

The Guide will sit alongside the Guidelines, Principle 10 and the Aarhus Convention as part of a growing body of international instruments directed at trying to ensure access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters within national jurisdictions.