Olga Zakharova: “Essentially, it is just the day before yesterday that we began to agree on what we would do with our environmental impact”

What were the European states, including Belarus, alarmed about that in 1998 the countries decided to sign the Aarhus Convention? Why is this UNECE convention called the main international document on environmental law?

We bring to your attention the speech of Olga Zakharova, who heads the Aarhus Center of the Republic of Belarus. The global issues raised in this speech at the 2018 Conference on environmental friendliness in Belarus, concern each and every one of us.

“We do have evidence even from the antique times that people were thinking about their impact on the environment. However, the environmental problems exacerbated a bit more than 100 years ago during the industrial period fostered by discovery of electricity, invention of the internal combustion engine and the conveyor. If we look at the dates when the international multilateral environmental treaties were concluded, we will see that most of them belong to the period of the last 30-40 years. And if we consider the entire period of existence of the humanity as one average human life, then we actually began to agree on how we will regulate our relations with the environment, just the day before yesterday. Thus, we live in the era when the international environmental law is getting formed. I am saying this to ensure that we understand that all of us who live nowadays have enormous responsibility for the decisions we make regarding the environment, including management of chemicals and waste.


The sustainable and environmentally sound development of our society depends on the effectiveness of the decision-making process, including at the level of the government, which takes into account the environmental considerations of all the stakeholders, including the public. When the authorities provide the public access to environmental information and enable it to participate in the decision-making process, they thereby contribute to achieving sustainable and environmentally sound development. The purpose of the Aarhus Convention is laconic and ambitious.

The goal takes into account the access to environmental information, participation in decision-making, and in case something goes wrong, access to justice. All of this is aimed at the sustainable development of the humanity and, as a minimum, conservation of the environment.

The Aarhus Convention contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.


Why is the Aarhus Convention unique?

Most international multilateral environmental treaties contain requirements on access to environmental information and civic engagement in decision-making process, however the actual tool for their implementation is stipulated in the Aarhus Convention. That is why it is the key document that contributes to implementation of the remaining environmental agreements on anything, for example, chemicals or waste.

For example, now the issue of environmental responsibility of business is increasingly being raised. Paragraph 9 of Article 5 of the Aarhus Convention says that each country should develop Pollutant Release and Transfer Register, the so-called PRTR. There is an appropriate protocol to the Convention. The Republic of Belarus is not yet a Party to the protocol, however p. 9 of Art. 5 is valid for us, and we must develop and we are developing such a register. Each nature user must independently upload information about their emissions into the environment into the general database and is responsible for accuracy of the data. This is basic information that the state agencies and the public may rely on in environmental decision-making.

In 2005, the Aarhus Center of the Republic of Belarus was established to facilitate the implementation of the Aarhus Convention. As of today, there are already three centers in the country: two in Minsk and one in Hrodna. Every year, the leaders of the Aarhus Centers of different countries get together, exchange experience and set new goals. This year, there were two key issues at such a meeting: promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals and work with young people.

What are the functions of the Aarhus Centers?

The Aarhus Centers advise individuals, legal entities, entrepreneurs on implementation of their rights to access environmental information and to participate in decision-making, as well as access to justice on environmental issues. The centers also conduct seminars, trainings, lectures and round tables.

More information about the requests that the Aarhus Centers work with in our country, as well as on the results of the work is available on the websites of the National Aarhus Center and Aarhus Center in Hrodna. Also an Aarhus Center recently opened in the NGO “Belarusian Republican Union of Lawyers”.

As for environmental friendliness of the Aarhus Centers, prior to starting to teach others, one needs to do exactly what they want to teach themselves. For example, our office applies the principle of resource saving in its work: collecting waste paper, printing materials on drafts, separate waste collection, etc.

The booklet of the Aarhus Center used to look like this – it was folded three times and required for quite a lot of printing ink. This is what it looks like after redesign. All the important things we wanted to say fitted in. And if they didn’t fit in, there’s the web site address where you can get the rest of the information. The logo of the Aarhus Center of the Republic of Belarus is applied using the embossing method (without paint) on visibility products. We are trying to use recycled paper for publishing printed materials. For example, practical recommendations on civic engagement in decision-making process were published on recycled paper, which in its turn was produced using energy obtained from renewable sources.

We also calculated our carbon footprint using a special calculator: how much electricity was consumed, what mileage the cars ran along the commuting route home-work-home, etc. So in order to compensate for the carbon footprint of our Aarhus Center, we need to plant 16 trees a year. We are planning to agree on supply of seedlings and we are planning to engage volunteers in planting.”