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International environmental conference takes critical stance toward public participation in environmental matters

21.09.2017 10:25
Category: work and news

On Friday, 15 September 2017, the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Slovenia (hereinafter: the Slovenian ombudsman) hosted an international conference on public participation in adopting environmental legislation. The conference called attention to the unresolved issue of civil society participation in adopting procedures, which the ombudsmen have repeatedly addressed to the responsible authorities, but irregularities nonetheless persist in this regard. The Slovenian ombudsman, her counterparts and their representatives from the other former Yugoslav republics ceremonially signed the declaration on the cooperation of ombudsmen regarding the environment and human rights.

In her introductory address, Human Rights Ombudsman Vlasta Nussdorfer stressed that the Slovenian Ombudsman's Office devotes particular attention to the right to a healthy living environment as part of efforts that this right take precedence over capital. The ombudsman receives 130 initiatives related to this issue every year. She highlighted the cooperation of the ombudsman with civil society and drew attention to the fact that her warnings are often ignored.

Secretary-General Nataša Kovač emphasized that the Slovenian President’s Office has also received a number of initiatives and questions relating to the environment. Ljubljana Deputy Mayor Aleš Čerin, sitting in for Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Janković, addressed the participants as a representative of the European Green Capital 2016 and on behalf of the City of Ljubljana. He particularly emphasised the importance of education in environmental protection, which has already been introduced in preschools and primary schools in Ljubljana.

The representative of the European Ombudsman, Josef Nejedlý, pointed out that even his institution deals with initiatives from civil society, which often reports obstructed access to documents containing environmental information. The public wants to be informed because only then will it be able to present its arguments in the procedures, he stressed.

Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning Irena Majcen announced that amendments to legislation are under way to provide the professional community and stakeholders with an appropriate regulatory basis for obtaining information on acts relating to the environment and, in view of their interest, make possible participation in the procedures. To this end, information systems are being developed to improve transparency for the procedures and the acts adopted.

At the beginning of the morning session held in the Estates Hall of Ljubljana Castle, Deputy Ombudsman Kornelija Marzel explained that the public can participate in environmental matters as a secondary participant, and, for example, non-governmental organisations operating in the public interest can thus enjoy the same rights as parties to the proceedings. The problem lies in the fact that such a status is difficult to obtain, Marzel said, pointing out that the responsible authorities have repeatedly attempted to evade the public's right to obtain access to environmental information and public participation in drafting regulations. The public clearly has the right to participate in environmental matters. This is also evident from the regulatory basis; it demonstrates good governance and constitutes a democratic social system, the deputy ombudsman said.

Public participation in environmental matters was also addressed by guests from the other former Yugoslav republics; Jasminka Džumhur and Ljubinko Mitrović, ombudsmen from Bosnia and Herzegovina; Hilmi Jashari, ombudsman from Kosovo, Idzet Memeti, ombudsmen from Macedonia; Olja Jovičić, secretary-general of the ombudsman from Serbia; Petar Ivezić, deputy ombudsman from Montenegro; and Lidija Lukina Kezić, deputy ombudsman from Croatia.

The level of public participation in drafting regulations in these countries varies. Even so, they all recognise and acknowledge its importance because it is a starting point for adopting high-quality and effective regulations.

At the conference, the ombudsmen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia signed the Declaration on the Cooperation of Ombudsmen Regarding the Environment and Human Rights. In so doing, they have set up a network with the purpose of establishing closer cooperation, exchanging knowledge and good practices, further developing forms of the ombudsman's response regarding the environment and providing support in fulfilling the mission of ombudsmen in this area. In its first year, the network will be chaired by Slovenia. Cooperation will be developed through regular annual forums, conferences or meetings of the network's representatives, topic-oriented meetings, joint visits to degraded areas, and exchange of knowledge, findings, documents, information and reports. The declaration emphasises, among other things, that the right to a healthy living environment is a fundamental human right (third generation), that all countries should strive to adopt systemic measures to exercise it and that ensuring a safe, healthy and sound environment is closely related to the situation in the country’s neighbourhood as well as to the transboundary and global context. The declaration is available here.

In the afternoon session, views on public participation in environmental matters were presented by the ombudsman's representatives, representatives of civil society, representatives of the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning and the Ministry of Public Administration, and business representatives.

In their contributions, Martina Ocepek, the director of the ombudsman's expert service, and Jožica Hanžel, the ombudsman's adviser, spoke about the insufficient public right to participate. They also emphasised that the existing arrangement provides a good and sufficient basis for an open and transparent system of public participation in adopting environmental regulations; however, because the ombudsman finds that in practice public participation is repeatedly deficient, they presented some solutions. Ocepek also stressed the importance of a well-drafted regulation, which makes its implementation easier and faster, while keeping the public abreast of all the preparation phases reduces potential public opposition. Adviser Jožica Hanžel presented the Analysis Concerning the Implementation of the Provisions of Article 34a of the Environmental Protection Act at the Local Level, which was first undertaken by the ombudsman in 2010 and has been repeatedly conducted this year.

Tanja Bolte, director-general of the Environment Directorate at the Slovenian Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning, and Teja Baloh from the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning presented the experiences and challenges of their ministry in public participation in adopting environmental legislation. Natalija Drnovšek from the Service for Transparency, Integrity and the Political System at the Ministry of Public Administration presented the analysis and conditions for ongoing public participation in sustainable development.

Uroš Macerl, the president of the Eko Krog (Eco Circle) society, and his colleague Anja Ovnik Brglez presented their experience regarding participation in environmental matters and stated that civil servants still consider the public to be "an unnecessary administrative obstacle". Slovenia’s experiences and challenges in this area were substantiated with concrete information by the director of the Centre for Information Service, Cooperation and Development of NGOs (CNVOS), Goran Forbici. The CNVOS has been monitoring implementation of the Resolution on Legislative Regulation for several years; the resolution is one of the bases for public participation in decision-making on matters of public concern. Samo Hribar Milič, the general manager of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia, spoke about the public right to be informed and the duty of the authorities to communicate, and Marko Peterlin, the director of the Institute for Spatial Policies, presented the conditions for effective public cooperation in spatial planning.

Also active in the discussion were representatives of non-governmental organisations, state bodies and other participants, who presented practical experience and thoughts on their participation in procedures, expressing quite a critical view of the work of the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning.

All of the papers and contributions by the participants in the discussion and the conclusions of the conference will be gathered in a special publication.  

At the end of the conference, Human Rights Ombudsman Vlasta Nussdorfer presented the following conclusions:

  • In practice, public participation in adopting environmental regulations is often only a mere formality. The drafters of regulations frequently see to it that regulatory norms for public participation are only formally met, but they avoid taking into consideration comments regarding content.  
  • Frequently, the general public and expert community are included too late in drafting regulations.
  • The public should be supplied with high-quality and comprehensive information because only on the basis of such information can public participation be effective.
  • It is necessary to ensure the participation of the widest possible range of stakeholders; it is no longer a question of whether the public should be involved or not, but who else should be involved.
  • It is important for the public to know who exerts influence on legislation. The purpose of such a legislative footprint is to record the entire activity of all participants, identify the experts involved and disclose lobbying as a method of interest groups' activities.
  • A lack of human resources or time limits should not be cited as a reason for inadequate public participation in adopting regulations.
  • The public expects its comments and proposals to be given careful consideration when drafting regulations and, when these are not taken into account, that this will be well substantiated.
  • The public participation process in adopting environmental regulations should also include new communication approaches and should take advantage of information technology.

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