The Aarhus Convention and its significance for Turkmenistan

The Aarhus Convention, formally known as the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, is an international treaty adopted in 1998 under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Turkmenistan signed the Aarhus Convention on June 25, 1999.

In this article, we will explore what the Aarhus Convention is, Turkmenistan’s involvement and history with the convention and its implications for an average citizen.

What is the Aarhus Convention?

The Aarhus Convention is a legally binding agreement developed to promote environmental democracy and sustainability. It grants individuals and civil society organizations the right to access environmental information, participate in environmental decision-making processes, and seek legal remedies in environmental matters. The convention underscores the importance of public involvement in shaping policies and decisions that impact the environment. The convention takes its name from the city of Aarhus in Denmark, where the parties came together.

Turkmenistan and its history in the Aarhus Convention

Turkmenistan signed the Aarhus Convention on June 25, 1999. By becoming a party to the convention, Turkmenistan committed to align its national legislation and practices with the principles of transparency and public participation in environmental issues. Subsequently, an Aarhus Centre was established in Ashgabat in 2012, working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, supported by OSCE. While Turkmenistan has made efforts to construct legal and regulatory structures concerning environmental issues over time, there are serious concerns about the actual implementation and enforcement of these provisions.

What does it mean for an average citizen?

The Aarhus Convention is important for the public in Turkmenistan. It promotes three important rights:

Access to information: You can ask the government agency, ministry for information about the environment. This helps you understand what is happening in your surroundings, like if there is pollution or new construction that might affect your area.

Participation in decision-making: You have a voice in decisions about the environment where you live. This means you can influence the rules and plans that impact your environment and your life.

Legal help: If you think the government is not following environmental laws or your rights under this convention, you can go to the national court to get justice, as prescribed in the Constitution. This makes sure that environmental problems can be reviewed by judges, and the government can be held accountable.

As an illustrative case, consider the cases of natural gas leaks. If there is a gas leak from a nearby gas field, you, as a concerned citizen, have the right to know about it and be alerted quickly. If the information and incidence get concealed by media, you can ask the local authorities for information about the leak and what they are doing to stop it. If they do not listen to you or fix the problem, you can take the local government or the entity responsible for the leaks to court.

“Legally binding”

The Aarhus Convention stands as the “only global legally binding global instrument on environmental democracy”. However, it’s crucial to note that the term “legally binding” in this context means that the Convention mandates member countries to enact national laws in accordance with its provisions and relies on these nations to enforce these laws themselves.

In simpler terms, the sole legal entity responsible for ensuring compliance with these laws is the respective nation or state itself. This presents an issue in Turkmenistan, a country lacking a clear separation of powers among its executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The only alternative option is the Compliance Committee established under the Aarhus Convention, which can only offer recommendations to the concerned Party (a country) to address the situation but it lacks the authority to enforce any actions.

A case of non-compliance by Turkmenistan

An example is the complaint filed by the Moldovan non-governmental organization, Biotica, which has accused Turkmenistan of failing to fulfill its commitments under the Convention. Back in 2004, Biotica submitted a complaint to the Committee, asserting that Turkmenistan had violated the article 3 (paragraph 4) of the Convention by introducing new regulations for non-governmental organizations in November 2003, inadequately recognizing and supporting environmental protection groups, and not aligning its national legal framework with the obligations outlined in the Convention.

This matter has been the subject of several Committee meetings over the years, including in 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017, and most recently in 2021. A comprehensive report from Crude Accountability provides an informative summary of this case, covering developments up to 2009, and acutely notes that “Without an active civil society, meeting the requirements of Aarhus has proved difficult in Turkmenistan, as recent history has shown”.

In the last meeting in 2021, the Committee discussed whether Turkmenistan is following certain rules related to environmental protection organizations. They found that Turkmenistan has some issues:

  • Foreigners and people without citizenship cannot easily join environmental groups in Turkmenistan.
  • There is confusion about a law that affects unregistered public groups working on environmental issues.
  • Turkmenistan needs to create clear and fair guidelines for these situations.

The document from the meeting suggests that Turkmenistan should make new laws to address these problems and asks different agencies of the government to work together. Turkmenistan needs to send a plan to adress these issues by July 2022, with updates in 2023 and 2024. If they do not act, they will receive a warning in January 2024, unless they meet the requirements before the set date. They will check the progress again in the next meeting. The case is still “on-going” with no end in sight, even after almost 20 years since the complaint was first filed.

Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers

An important sister-instrument of the Aarhus Convention is the so-called Kyiv Protocol. Formally known as the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs), it is an international environmental agreement that promotes transparency in reporting and tracking the release and transfer of pollutants by industrial facilities. It requires participating countries to establish PRTRs to collect and disseminate information on emissions, fostering awareness and accountability for environmental pollution. Notably, Turkmenistan chose not to endorse the Kyiv Protocol.

Turkmenistan has failed to comply with the Convention

Turkmenistan has taken various measures to align itself with the Aarhus Convention’s principles. In 2021, a seminar was held to discuss the roles of the ombudsman, media, and youth in promoting the Aarhus Convention’s principles. This meeting was attended by the representatives from Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection, as well as other relevant governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Additionally, Turkmenistan’s commitment to the Aarhus Convention is supported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE supports the Aarhus Centre in Ashgabat, which serves as a platform for fostering collaboration between the government, the public, and the private sector concerning environmental issues.

However, despite sporadically publishing specific reports on emissions and pollution, Turkmenistan’s execution of the convention’s provisions lacks clarity, transparency, and consistency. The information and data that is published is irregular, often outdated, and contains frequent discrepancies and inconsistencies. Furthermore, the enacted laws lack specificity, and the enforcement of these laws remains unclear.

In 2012, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) conducted an Environmental Performance Review of Turkmenistan, which was the country’s sole review, while other Central Asian nations had already undergone three such review cycles. The report emphasized that Turkmenistan, despite its commitments under the Aarhus Convention, did not consistently release periodic environmental assessment reports, and there were limited efforts to ensure public access to such information. In 2012, only registered public associations inside the country were granted access to limited environmental data and permitted to participate in environmental affairs.

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