A dangerous bill proposing to redistribute powers with respect to environmental protection could give corruption and plundering in Ukraine a whole new dimension
Democratic countries are certainly right to be taking a firm stand on the politically motivated prosecutions of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko and other members of her government. Unfortunately, however, the insistence on a change to one single legislative norm is taking place against a background of legislative initiatives placing the very foundations of a law-based democracy in jeopardy.
The 2010 judicial reforms have, as warned at the time, made judges considerably less independent and more malleable. One very recent amendment removes the requirement for judges to make income declarations public. The motive seems fairly clear: keep them sweet– and submissive. Another amendment likely to be passed in the near future will remove any pretence that judges are not hand-picked for particular cases. The consequences of such moves for the rule of law need not be spelled out.
Others probably need to be, not least because of the soporific effect of oversized draft bills with mantra-like repetition of “reform”, “optimization”, etc. When they deal with mechanisms for environmental protection, most people are likely to switch off.
At their peril since Draft Law No. 10218, submitted by the President’s spokesperson in parliament, if passed, will have grave ramifications for Ukraine’s compliance with a number of international agreements and commitment to fighting corruption.
Clear warnings have been issued by environmental NGOs. They even appeared to have been heeded by the Parliamentary Committee on Environmental Policy which on 11 April recommended that the bill be rejected. Yet the bill is still being pushed, is on the parliamentary agenda for the 20-24 May session, and there are fairly good grounds for believing it could be passed.
The amendments proposed aim at greater centralization with a worrying and quite unjustified amount of power being vested with the Cabinet of Ministers.
One of the changes would legislate a move first initiated in Decree No. 452/2011 and signed by President Yanukovych in April 2011. This dissolves the territorial departments of the Environment Ministry. In an appeal to the President, environmental NGOs pointed out that this entailed the « destruction of virtually the entirely State system of environmental protection created over the years of independence ».
The consequences are easy to understand if we consider the 30 thousand companies in Ukraine dealing with dangerous waste. Instead of needing to get permits from one of 35 territorial departments of the Environment Ministry, they will now be forced to deal directly with Kyiv. “Forced” may not be the right term since only responsible companies will be inconvenienced. Those less inclined to take proper safety measures and consider the environment are likely to find the arrangement highly convenient. The reduced staff at the Central Ministry will have to deal with all issues, including such permits. At best, the issue of permits will perforce turn into a largely formal exercise. At worst, it will become a source of corruption and place Ukraine’s natural environment and people’s health under even greater jeopardy.
The Environment Ministry’s ability to carry out environmental protection programmes, identify and react to infringements of environmental rights would also be seriously compromised. Vital Environmental Impact Assessments would be at best shoddy. This is of major importance since the amendments would also effectively remove the controlling powers of the Environment Inspectorate.
The redistribution of authority would give quite unwarranted power to both the Cabinet of Ministers and local State Administrations. It is worth recalling the extraordinary events in May – June 2010 when the Kharkiv city authorities ignored huge public protest and breached decisions by the Environment Ministry in destroying, for shady purposes, a part of Gorky Park. Nationwide and international protest over lawlessness and violent suppression of peaceful protest would be effectively eliminated by the proposed amendments, with local administrations receiving a free hand.
This is all in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s international obligations under the Aarhus Convention and other documents.
Given the inadequate way in which the Cabinet of Ministers and local State administrations have exercised their current powers in this sphere, efforts to give them still greater power raise very serious questions regarding motives.
There is a manifestly absurd proposal to abolish the National Commission on Ukraine’s Red Book with the Cabinet of Ministers and other executive bodies being left to consider proposals for adding animal and plant species to the Red Book.
The draft law is aimed at weakening independent control mechanisms, regional decision-making by competent bodies as opposed to interested parties, and consolidating power in the hands of the government and local authorities. Any attempts to explain this as being to save money should be viewed against the government’s notorious generosity in providing for its own comfort and well-being.
Removal of proper controls under the proposed redistribution of power will open the floodgates for corruption and plundering, and be yet another blow to Ukraine’s democracy. It’s been knocked quite enough already.