The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus. Among other issues, the Convention, which entered into force on 30 October 2001, links environmental rights and human rights, and establishes that sustainable development can only be achieved through the involvement of all stakeholders. The Convention builds directly on Principle 10 of the 1992 UN Rio Declaration by linking government accountability and environmental protection, and focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities in a democratic context.
By setting principles in three pillars, namely access to information, public participation and access to justice, the Aarhus Convention provides the OSCE with a unique tool to support environmental governance processes at national level. This, in turn contributes to participating States' efforts in addressing environment and security challenges. Currently, 40 OSCE participating States are parties to the Convention.
Since 2002, the OSCE has been supporting the creation of Aarhus Centres and Public Environmental Information Centres (PEICs), both through its field offices and the Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities. It has done so in close co-operation with the UNECE Aarhus Convention Secretariat and mostly within the framework of the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative.
The Aarhus Centres and PEICs serve as a link between the Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in environmental policy-making and implementation. They also provide a platform for coalition-building and partnership among NGOs in addressing environmental issues. These Centres have been very active in promoting the Aarhus Convention principles at national and local levels; in facilitating public access to environmental information, in involving citizens in environmental decision-making, and in facilitating access to justice for citizens.
As of January 2010, there are a total of 30 Aarhus Centres in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Tajikistan. Increasingly, governments are taking over responsibility for supporting Aarhus Centres from the OSCE, which indicates great interest in the Aarhus initiative and will contribute to the Centres' sustainability.
In an effort to generate knowledge from the experience of the Aarhus Centres and further improve on their performance, the OSCE commissioned an independent evaluation of the Centres in 2008. Based on the results of this evaluation, two key policy documents - the Aarhus Centre Roadmap and the Aarhus Centre Guidelines - which shape the future direction of the Aarhus Centre initiative, have been developed. The Roadmap is a short- to medium-term instrument designed to identify relevant activities by the Aarhus Centres to support the Aarhus Convention Strategic Plan (2009-14) and to improve the performance of the Centres. The Aarhus Centre Guidelines provide guidance on the long-term strategic orientation, institutional set-up and desired activities for Aarhus Centres, and are designed to ensure a common understanding about the Centres' role among all stakeholders.
In January 2010, the OSCE convened the second Aarhus Centres Meeting in Istanbul (the first had been held in January 2009 in Vienna) which brought together Aarhus Centre representatives from South-Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the UNECE, the Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities as well as experts to discuss issues and developments relevant to the Convention and the Aarhus Centre Initiative. The meeting highlighted the capacity-building needs of the Aarhus Centres, called for increased networking and co-operation among them, and for mainstreaming the Aarhus Centres initiative into relevant environmental programmes and projects of the governments, OSCE field operations, and ENVSEC.