This week’s Aarhus series looks at Belarus where – at a time when the climate crisis is one of the greatest global and existential threats we face – defending the environment can land you in prison, write Frederik Hafen and Andreea Anca.
In recent years, environmental defenders exercising their right to access information, participation and access to justice in Belarus, have been harassed, imprisoned and their workplaces abolished. This is not short of regretful irony, since the country is officially a Party to the Aarhus Convention, an international human rights agreement on environmental governance, which places the obligation on all public authorities, officers and individuals to implement the commitments and provisions outlined in the Convention.
In Belarus this year, over 240 NGOs have been liquidated or are in the process of being so. In recent weeks Ecohome, a member of the European ECO Forum which represents civil society at the Aarhus Convention, had its offices searched, its employees prosecuted and was ultimately abolished.
When and why has the government in Belarus started to target environmental defenders?
In 2012 Belarusian law enforcement officers arrested and sentenced four activists who are famous for their campaign against the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant and sentenced them to administrative detention. Ever since then, the situation has deteriorated. Since the summer of 2020, the harassment, unlawful arrests, and liquidation of NGOs has become a national priority.
What is the issue at stake?
Public participation! In relation to environmental decisions, participation mainly occurs at a stage when it is already very hard for NGOs to influence the decision-making process. State bodies often treat the public formally and with neglect, and, when making decisions, do not take into consideration the public opinion, which subsequently leads to conflicts. Belarus has now moved away from such bureaucratic tricks of undermining public participation and has started to openly declare war against civil society. Democracy is being attacked and with it, the lives, and livelihoods of environmental defenders in the country and society as a whole.
Is Belarus in breach of International Law?
Yes! As a Party to the Aarhus Convention since 2001, Belarus agreed to act in accordance with its principles of access to environmental information, the right to public participation, and access to justice. In addition, it has made the commitment to transpose the provisions of the Convention into the national legislation. In that sense, Belarus is in breach of International Law.
On 22 April 2014, the Secretariat of the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (aka Aarhus Convention) was alerted to the harassment of anti-nuclear activists by Belarus.
The session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention in Montenegro in 2017 (MOP-6) found that Belarus had violated the right of the public to receive information and to participate in environmental decision-making, when developing the Ostrovets nuclear power plant (NPP) project. This was the third time that the Parties acknowledged that Belarus was not complying with its international obligations under the Aarhus Convention.
How can the Aarhus Convention help environmental defenders?
All eyes are on the next Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention (MOP-7), taking place in Geneva, 18 – 22 October. Belarus, as a Party to the Convention, could be sanctioned by the suspension of its rights and privileges under the Convention.
There is hope environmental defenders in all the Aarhus Parties, as countries are set to vote at the next week’s MOP on a new defense mechanism that provides for additional protection measures.
If endorsed, the Convention’s new Rapid Response Mechanism would establish a Special Rapporteur with the authority to approach public authorities in all Aarhus states directly and issue immediate protection measures to prevent the harassment and persecution of environmental defenders.
While the EEB is advocating for this new mechanism to be up and running as soon as possible after its adoption next week, we stand by our Belarusian colleagues and friends with admiration for their courage and perseverance.