Minsk quits Aarhus President and Minister: Belarus’ Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Andrei Khudyk reporting to President Lukashenko in February 2021. Photo: President.gov.by

Minsk quits Aarhus

Belarus withdraws from landmark UN environmental rights treaty

Following a heated exchange of arguments, Minsk has ultimately withdrawn from the Aarhus Convention – the primary UN instrument guaranteeing public participation, access to information and justice on environmental matters in Europe. Minsk’s decision to withdraw came amidst severe repressions against environment, human rights and democracy defenders in the country, and followed upon years of neglect to its obligations under the Convention, in spite of civil society and international pressure for compliance.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)’s Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (pdf ~50K) was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus (Århus). It entered into force on 30 October 2001. Alongside 46 countries of Europe and Central Asia, the Convention is ratified by the EU Parliament which makes it also part of EU’s community law.

The Parties to the Convention are required to make the necessary     provisions so that public authorities (at national, regional or local level) will contribute to these rights to become effective. The Convention provides for:

  • the right of everyone to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities; 
  • the right to participate in environmental decision-making, including enabling the public affected and environmental non-governmental organizations to comment on policies, plans and programmes relating to the environment; and
  • the right to legal procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting the two aforementioned rights or environmental law in general. 

Losing Belarus

The Belarusian minister for natural resources and environmental protection Andrei Khudyk, called the decision “discriminatory”, “unfounded” and “politically” motivated, Geneva Solutions reported. An announcement by the Belarus President’s Office on July 18 referred to “a biased and discriminatory attitude and pressure from the governing bodies of the convention” against the country. “Under these circumstances, Belarus cannot continue being a full-fledged party to this convention,” the announcement concludes. On the same day President Alexandr Lukashenko signed Decree No. 247 on the withdrawal of the Republic of Belarus from the Aarhus Convention. 

The Convention’s Secretariat acknowledged that on 24 October 2022 – in 90 days from the day of notification – Belarus will officially stop being a Party to the Aarhus Convention (https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/CN/2022/CN.259.2022-Eng.pdf). 

However  the Convention’s Chair of the Meeting of the Parties Aurimas Saladžius denied any wrongdoing or bias against Belarus.  In a letter to Khudyk he emphasized on September 7, that the Meeting of the Parties, the Compliance Committee and other bodies of the Convention have been “fair and measured in their actions, and have offered valuable clarification, assistance, and facilitation to Belarus on multiple occasions”. 

Ecohome also confirmed that the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention has repeatedly recognized the legislation and practice of Belarus as contrary to the Convention, and gave clear and detailed recommendations on how to correct the situation. On the contrary, in a statement of August 8, 2022, Ecoforum accused the state officials in threats and blackmail, and thanked the Convention’s Secretariat and other bodies for standing for the Aarhus values and principles.

Environment defenders repressed

ecohome ngo экодом нго марина дубина беларусь 2020 нго гражданское общество
Pressure against civil society in Belarus worsened drastically since 2019. Photo: https://ecohome.ngo

Ecohome is among over 70 environmental groups which have been closed or forced to discontinue their work by the authorities in Minsk. According to its statement, as of August 1, 2022  539 CSOs are known to have been liquidated in judicial or out-of-court procedures by the state and 343 CSOs have voluntarily closed.

In this context Saladžius commented in his letter that by quitting the Aarhus Convention Belarus is choosing to deprive itself, and its public, of the benefits of the powerful and proven instrument for facilitating and ensuring environmental democracy. “Moreover, Belarus is doing so at a time of great global environmental peril and during a period in which its own environmental defenders are facing ever-increasing penalization, persecution and harassment”, he clarified.

Saving the soul of the Convention

Aurimas Saladžius, Aarhus Convention’s Chair of the Meeting of the Parties said that the withdrawal from the convention will mark “yet another way in which Belarus is turning its back against the international community and the protection of human rights in general”. Photo: Ministry of Environment, Lithuania

Saladžius, who is also Head of Sustainable Development and Strategic Change Group at the Ministry of Environment of Lithuania, wrote further: 

“The military offensive by the Russian federation in Ukraine has struck a direct and lasting blow to multilateralism and the values of the United Nations. The impacts of this war have been and continue to be devastating for people’s lives, as well as for human rights, for the environment, and for the sustainable, shared future that we are working together to achieve. They also directly undermine the Aarhus Convention. At this difficult time for our region and indeed for the world, the importance of a united Aarhus community is more crucial than ever.”.

Besides a source of legitimate concerns, the withdrawal of Belarus is good news, said Magdolna Toth-Nagy, a leading expert on access to information, justice and public participation at the former Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that [the government of] Belarus was a party, and everyone tried to make them accountable, they have not complied with many of their obligations,” Toth-Nagy explained. Belarus has been very obstructive and tried to mobilize  – successfully sometimes –  other countries to slow down or undermine the progress on further necessary steps and mechanisms prescribed by the Convention, Toth-Nagy said. 

In her view Belarus was in a way discrediting the role of a party to the Aarhus Convention and respect for  the resulting obligations. Ecoforum confirms this. Various forms of persecution of environmental activists most clearly illustrate that Belarus is unable and has no intention to fulfill its obligations under the Convention, the organization stated. It also pointed at existing problems with access to environmental information and lack of effective tools for public participation in environmental decision making. 

“When concluding an international treaty, it is presumed that a country will not only enjoy privileges and opportunities the said treaty provides, but also fulfill the obligations it takes on under the agreement. By taking the decision to withdraw from the Convention, Minsk officials confirmed that they would not comply with its obligations. For the current political regime in Belarus, being a part of a family of democratic countries that ensures human rights and promotes environmental democracy is not currently a priority”, wrote Ecoforum

Ecohome committed to continue its work for environmental democracy in Belarus and protection of the environment to the spirit and intent of the Aarhus Convention, and to ensure the Human Right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment recognized by the UN General Assembly. The activists said that they look forward to Belarus becoming a free and democratic state that commits to and delivers on environmental democracy and the rights and interests of its citizens. Then the country will “return to the family of the Aarhus Convention in deed and not just in words”, they wrote.

Saladžius also expressed  hope that Belarus would eventually rejoin the Aarhus Convention in the future.