I suspect the value of repetition in learning is overrated. Yes, willy-nilly after the thousandth time you remember something, but whether you believe it is another matter. And when it`s only the questions that are repeated over and over again and when any phrases are empty or for foreign consumption only, then the lessons learned are hardly constructive. Where the subject is the environment and the country – Ukraine, then it all takes on a desperately poignant urgency.
It is 22 years since the Chernobyl Disaster. Despite upbeat words from the International Atomic Energy Agency, some scars will never heal. For Ukrainians the disaster had an added thrust, crystallizing the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime which lied and lied again. Party functionaries evacuated their own children yet sent other young boys and girls, those most at risk, onto the streets of Kyiv for May Day celebrations. That memory stays.
The Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukraine as independent and sovereign state began taking on international commitments. One of these commitments was under the Aarhus Convention (UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters).
The Convention, ten years old this month, reads like a response to Chernobyl. It is after all about the right to know and to have a say in what immediately concerns us. That its provisions must be observed is at once staggeringly obvious and a point the Ukrainian authorities seem gallingly reluctant to understand.
Access to information – where is it?
For the last three years there has been no National Report on the State of the Environment in Ukraine. It is a legal requirement for parliament to review these reports submitted on an annual basis. It is hardly necessary to explain that the lack of report is not for want of subject matter. The number of environmental accidents, contentious environmental plans and disturbing demographic trends make the need for such reports urgent.
Nor is there any other reliable source of official information. The Ministry for Environmental Protection website suggests that the staff of this illustrious body have other more important tasks. In the absence of any information, we can only guess what these may be.
You`d think it was clear that formal requests for information must be answered, yet the civil servants are in no hurry to obey the law here either. Their attempts to avoid providing information are sometimes almost comical and arouse the suspicion that they either have no idea what they`re doing at work, or seriously underestimate the mental faculties of the people they are there to serve.
Almost comical, since there is little humour in a situation where citizens are asking for information about environmentally dangerous enterprises in their area and about the impact of environmental accidents, for environmental impact assessments or explanations as to why these have been ignored. They want to know whether their water is fit to drink and why the food safety norms which were already outmoded in Soviet times have not been updated.
Not unreasonable requests for information …
Do the authorities understand who the public are?
The Ministry for Environmental Protection [MEP] has produced one report with a wonderfully impressive title – the Combined National Report for 2007 on Implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Ukraine. Nothing else is at all impressive however one or two details should be noted. Firstly, this is a report prepared, not for the Ukrainian public, but for the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention which took place last week in Riga. The draft of the report was fleetingly on the Ministry`s website, but has now disappeared again.
No less important are questions of transparency, not to mention public participation. MEP claims that a letter was sent by email in August 2007 inviting civic organizations with an environmental focus to put forward proposals. The leading environmental organizations did not receive such emails, nor have "Zeleny svit" ["Green World"] received proper responses to two information requests asking, among other things, who was sent the invitation. An "answer" was received to their first letter which informed that according to some departmental Order, only three questions are allowed on a particular environmental issue, and they had asked all of six! Needless to say, not even the "allowed" three questions were answered. A response is still awaited from the repeat information request, which spelled out the lack of such restrictions on numbers of questions in any current legislation. Now here they underestimate more than just mental faculties. They also fail to allow for the tenacity which comes when questions are simply too important to be fobbed off or ignored.
The long overdue preparation of a Strategy Plan for implementation of the Aarhus Convention finally moved off the ground, yet once again with a curious interpretation of public participation. MEP informed in February this year that a draft Strategy had been drawn up by an organization called "Ekologiya lyudyny" ["Ecology of Man"] which had supposedly won a tender to prepare a draft and organize consultations via an Internet conference. Why hold consultations on the Internet is not clear, but still less is how they ran a tender which none of the main environmental and human rights organizations in Ukraine were informed of, nor whether there were any other bids.
We could mention "public hearings" which those likely to ask hard-hitting questions learn about post fact, and more.
Hardly positive, or maybe ..
I had stopped at this point, painfully aware of the need to move from criticism to constructive suggestions. Various options came to mind, but so did sceptical mutterings. Action is indeed needed and we need to move forward, but how do you convince people?
I was saved by brutal lack of choice. The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee reviewed the so called "Strategy Plan" last week in Riga. It would appear that MEP underestimated the powers of critical thinking not only of its own citizens. The draft decision from the Meeting of Parties issues a caution to Ukraine. The first detailed information on compliance needs to be provided in November this year.
Information appeared on the MEP website about the Meeting. Or more accurately about a "number of meetings the Minister held with colleagues from other countries", and so forth. Not a word about the caution. No time to waste on such trivia?
It`s hardly trivial, but there is indeed no time to waste. We can move forward though if from now on we don`t tolerate any fob-offs, any secretive "tenders" and public hearings that the public didn`t hear about. And if everything is open. Not a shadow of naivety in this. No expectations that somebody "up there" will understand the importance of the issue, but we do and will be following every step.
We invite people to send us information concerning environmental issues linked with the Aarhus Convention – about information requests and lack of reply or fob-offs, about public participation etc. We will endeavour to inform the public and the international community in Ukrainian and English about anything that could impact upon the implementation of this vital Convention. Nobody wishes to sully Ukraine`s image. Quite the contrary and we hope that the authorities soon understand what really is damaging, however we cannot wait. We have the right to environmental democracy and a safe environment – the right and duty to achieve it.
We have a chance now, and will have precisely what we are able, or unable, to change.
By Halya Coynash , Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group