Access to information is the first step towards effective democracy
“Exercising our rights of access to information: Theory and Practice”: this was the title of a seminar held on 31 March in Zaporizhya. The seminar was organized by the environmental and humanitarian association “Zeleny svit” [“Green world”], in partnership with the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and the Information Centre of the Ukrainian Environmental Association “Zeleny svit”, the Severodonetsk branch of “Zeleny svit” and the “Zaporizhya Green Movement”. Those who attended represent Ukrainian environmental and human rights organizations working within the framework of a project on exercising our rights of access to information supported by the International Renaissance Foundation.
There are of course a number of types of information of immediate significance to each person regardless of their level of public activity or political views. The most pressing issues for individuals are information about the standard of living, security, public health and also the state of the environment. In each of these areas, people have particular rights and ways of exercising them. If we do not have adequate information about what the authorities are doing, we are deprived of the possibility of fully exercising our rights.
Article 50 of the Ukrainian Constitution guarantees each person “the right of free access to information about the state of the environment …and the right to disseminate such information. No one shall make such information secret”. Ukraine is also signatory to more than 40 international environmental conventions and protocols to these. Of particular importance is the Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters (the Aarhus Convention). This Convention pays a key role in integrating the ideas of human rights and environmental protection and is an extremely important component of national and international legal systems. It stipulates the public right to take part in protecting the environment, and especially the right of access to information about its state. Although 7 years have passed since Ukraine ratified the Convention, effective practical implementation of its requirements remains lacking. The normative legal acts passed in order to fulfil these requirements unfortunately fail to comply with the spirit and letter of the Convention. The Ukrainian government has effectively avoiding fulfilling its international commitments and has artificially narrowed the opportunities for Ukrainians to receive information about the environment.
We can all confirm that the level of adherence to environmental legislation in Ukraine is inadequate. This is seen in the unsatisfactory amount of information about the environment published, in the virtual absence of State environmental policy and in the mass violation of the right to a safe environment and rise in illnesses linked with environmental problems. The majority of industrial cities in the Donbas area, the area around the Dnipro River and Polissya which suffered as a result of Chernobyl, 1,200 rural areas which do not have sources of good drinking water and therefore use water brought from outside, can all be justifiably considered areas of environmental disaster. The formal treatment of environmental legislation by the authorities, the lack of information transparency, the inefficient work of State controlling bodies hamper any significant improvement in the state of the environment and create obstacles towards public participation in achieving effective environmental policy. There are at the same time many examples where the authorities ignore their duties, public formal requests for information on the state of the environment and where they use stamps restricting access to relevant documents. Over two years no “network for nationwide environmental computerised, information and analysis system for ensuring access to environmental information”, as envisaged in decisions from the Cabinet of Ministers and Verkhovna has been created.
Within the framework of the project on “Exercising our rights of access to information”, human rights and environmental organizations are planning to carry out monitoring of access to environmental information and to apply civic and media pressures, as well as carrying out information and education measures.
We consider work aimed at fulfilling the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on access to information to be an important element in establishing a system of transparency for the activities of the authorities, and improving the quality of the decisions they take. It is an efficient factor in general democratic society and defence of our constitutional right to a safe environment.
Reports were presented at the seminar from:
- the co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and head of the Board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Yevhen Zakharov on the fundamental principles of freedom of information and compliance of Ukrainian legislation and practice in the information sphere to those principles, as well as typical examples of restricts on this freedom;
- defence lawyer and lecturer at the Kyiv Shevchenko National University, and legal consultant for the project “Exercising our rights of access to information” Viacheslav Yakubenko, on the legal aspects of defending the right of access to information, procedure for appeal against formal requests being turned down and information not being provided;
- Head of the project and of the environmental and humanitarian association “Zeleny svit” Oleksandr Stepanenko who spoke on the concept of environmental information, the basic provisions of domestic legislation on environmental information, the action plan for the present project (agreeing priority topics where formal requests for information will be sent);
- the Head of the Information Centre of the Ukrainian Environmental Association “Zeleny svit” Serhiy Fedorynchyk who spoke on the Aarhus Convention and the situation with implementing its provisions.
Those presented supported a resolution stating the need for revisions to the draft law “On amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On information” which the Ministry of Justice has presented for public debate.
Head of the project “Exercising our rights of access to information” and of the environmental and humanitarian association “Zeleny svit” Oleksandr Stepanenko