The 7th Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention (MoP-7), which took place this week at the United Nations in Geneva, was all about Belarussian repression, hope for environmental defenders, and the EU’s rule of law hypocrisy. This week’s Aarhus series is giving a debrief of this high-level event.

Representatives of the European Eco forum, the coalition of civil society organisations at the Aarhus Convention, travelled to Geneva to attend MoP-7 to the Aarhus Convention. With a tightly packed agenda, the NGO focus was on preventing states from backtracking on their commitments to environmental democracy and on reminding them of the ambitions for the future.

By the end of the week the NGOs could not decide what caused more damage to environmental democracy, the Belarussian autocratic regime or the European Union’s hypocritical bureaucracy.

How did the convention react to Belarussian repression?

To date, more than 250 Belarussian NGOs have been liquidated including NGO Ecohome, who is part of the umbrella group European Eco Forum. Private homes have been searched, activists criminally persecuted, and colleagues forced into exile. Belarus has been found in grave non-compliance with international law by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee. As a result, for the first time in history, the meeting of the Aarhus Convention was forced to take a vote at this week’s MoP-7. The Belarussian delegation fought tooth and nail to prevent the international community from publicly acknowledge the oppressiveness of its country and, despite support from Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the final decision was to suspend Belarus’ rights and privileges under the convention if it does not reinstate NGO Ecohome by the end of the year. We hope that this diplomatic slap on the wrist will encourage states to take a harder stand on Belarus and offer more support to the civil society in the country.

We continue to stand by our Belarusian colleagues and friends and applaud their stamina and courage in the face of a government that is trying to destroy their work and often their lives.

Are there any good news regarding the protection of the environmental defenders?

On Wednesday, Parties to the Convention, finally agreed to put in place a Rapid Response Mechanism headed by a Special Rapporteur (SR) for environmental defenders. Two Parties to the convention, Austria and Ireland, are financing this new instrument which will provide additional protection to environmentalist defenders in all countries of the Parties. The first SR will be appointed at an extraordinary Meeting of the Parties in 2022. He / she will have the mandate to step in and put pressure on public authorities directly when environmental defenders have their life and livelihoods threatened.

How was the issue of European Union’s compliance with the Convention resolved?

Unfortunately, there can be no talk of “resolving”. For the second time in history, the EU refused to accept one of the findings of the Convention’s Compliance Committee and prevented their formal endorsement. Four years ago, the EU held the whole Convention hostage and derailed the decision on all the findings of its non-compliance. This time around, the EU did not block the whole decision but rather employed a procedural trick and cherry picked the findings on its own compliance that it could tolerate, and also the ones it preferred to postpone. While the outcry against such arrogance was great, the State Parties ultimately agreed on a compromise that includes the postponement desired by the EU.

The European Eco Forum regrets the decision of the Parties and strongly deplores the EU’s disrespect for the compliance mechanism under the Convention and the international rule of law. Although the findings on the EU’s breach of international law did not get their final diplomatic stamp of approval by being adopted at this meeting, civil society wants to make sure it will pressure the EU  to resolve its non-compliance and finally provide access to justice to EU Commission state aid decisions.

What else happened at the MOP7?

After 20 years of the entry into force of the Aarhus Convention, the first African state to accede to the Aarhus Convention is Guinea-Bissau. Although the former is open to universal accession, this is the first time that a State outside of the UNECE region joins the Aarhus Convention. The NGO community celebrates this historic moment which enriches and enlarges the Aarhus family.

All statements from the NGOs present at MoP-7 are uploaded here.

Interviews with the leading lights of the Aarhus Convention and its Protocol on PRTRs

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