Improving the Public’s Right to Know at Rio+20
On Sept. 2, 30 U.S. public interest groups joined civil society organizations around the globe in demanding that their national governments improve access to environmental and public health information and increase public participation in environmental policymaking. These organizations are calling on their governments to make such commitments at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in order for people around the world to be able to effectively use environmental information to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from pollution, toxic chemicals, and other hazards.
The UNCSD will convene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012 to discuss the institutional framework for sustainable development and how to build green economies. Rio+20, as the conference is being called, is a follow-up to the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development. At the 1992 conference, 178 governments confirmed that active involvement and participation of citizens and non-state actors at all levels was a prerequisite for successful environmental policies.
Although public access to environmental information has improved over the past two decades, in many countries, citizens – especially the poor and marginalized – still lack adequate information to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from environmental harm. Thus, the need for Rio+20 is clear, and participating nations must be prepared to take additional steps to address the shortcomings in people's environmental right to know that still exist today.
Three Demands (3Ds) Campaign for Rio+20
To prepare for Rio+20, The Access Initiative, a global network that promotes access to information, participation, and justice in environmental issues, launched a campaign to encourage public interest organizations from various countries to present their governments with a list of three next steps to improve environmental decision making. The focus of the Three Demands, or "3Ds", Campaign is to improve the thrust and implementation of Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, which asserts:
Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.
In other words, in 1992, the framers of Principle 10 recognized the fundamental truth that better environmental decisions are made when all interested citizens are fully informed and involved. Furthermore, information on environmental issues should come from all branches of government, and citizens should be able to take environmental problems to administrative agencies and the courts to be resolved.
So far, organizations from 26 countries have each generated and delivered their three demands to improve access and participation in environmental decision making. The most frequent demands made by public interest organizations in these countries include:
- Create regional conventions on Principle 10 in various areas around the world. Many groups, especially in Latin America, felt that international agreements with neighboring countries would help fortify weak enforcement of their existing requirements to grant access and encourage participation.
- Improve access to information and public participation in environmental assessment practices. For instance, Indian groups demanded that the public be consulted earlier on environmental impact assessments of proposed projects and urged that the public consultation process be brought to other environmental issues such as forest conservation, biodiversity, and clean air and water.
- Establish broad legal reforms to ensure access to information, including stronger right-to-know laws, freedom of information protections, and more.
- Create central government databases for environmental data.
- Form environmental courts to settle environmental cases more quickly and less expensively.
- Implement citizen enforcement clauses of major environmental laws. For example, the Jamaican demands included a call for legislation that would allow citizens to take direct legal action against polluters, even if those polluters were government facilities.
The Three U.S. Demands
While the U.S. has made more progress on environmental protection and access to information than many other countries, the system is far from perfect, and many communities still struggle to understand and engage in the environmental issues impacting their air, water, and land. To address these problems, the 30 U.S. public interest groups, including OMB Watch, submitted three requests that largely mirrored themes and recommendations advanced in the environmental right-to-know report, An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, which was endorsed by more than 100 organizations and released on May 10.
Specifically, the organizations requested that the federal government:
- Initiate a process to review and evaluate environmental and public health information holdings in every major federal agency.
- Identify and adopt a set of best practices on public participation for federal agencies to follow. Once developed, these documents and web-based information services should be made publicly available by posting on agency websites, Regulations.gov, and any other venue that will promote widespread availability of the information.
- Direct federal agencies to develop and implement a component of their open government plans that focuses on priorities for regional and state offices. The component should establish the most important open government issues and set specific goals for the regional or state offices to complete milestones, with target deadlines included.
The UN Second Preparatory Committee is collecting comments from countries, organizing partners, and the public as it prepares for Rio+20. The compiled inputs will be used in the development of the initial version, or "zero document," of the conference’s outcome document. Comments on expectations of the conference, reviews of existing proposals the conference will consider, how to close the implementation gap, and possible mechanisms for cooperation can be submitted online and are due by Nov. 1. The “zero document” is expected to be released to the public in January 2012.
Prior to the November deadline, U.S. groups will hold meetings with the U.S. State Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House to encourage the United States government to lead by example.
On the international level, the Access Initiative first presented results of the 3Ds campaign at the UN Department of Public Information’s 64th NGO (non-governmental organization) Conference, which occurred Sept. 3-5 in Bonn, Germany. The goal of the conference was to provide public interest input on sustainable development goals for the Rio Conference. By the end of the conference, 1,500 NGOs and other stakeholders agreed to a Declaration, which will be submitted to the zero document process by the November deadline. The declaration calls on Rio+20 to establish an international convention that deals specifically with access to information, public participation, and environmental justice.