Geneva, 24 October, 2003
Yesterday, environmental organisations attacked EU governments for withdrawing from their promise to work on a pan-European legal framework for public participation rights on GMO-related decisions. Exactly one year ago, in the Italian town of Lucca, the parties to the Aarhus Convention 'on the right to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters' recognised that this Convention had a loophole on decisions on the use of GMOs. They agreed that a legally binding solution should be worked on. However, several EU governments are resisting progress. They think the existing EU legislation on GMOs is sufficient and are reluctant to co-operate on an instrument that would be legally binding for potentially 50 European countries. France, in particular, does not want to see any legally binding international rule on this, and was accused by the NGOs of obstructing the process.
John Hontelez, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau and Chair of the Public Participation Campaigns Committee of the European Ecoforum told the government representatives at a Convention meeting yesterday: 'The Ministers' decision in Lucca was a commitment to the European public to guarantee that they will have the same rights on public participation in GMO decision-making as on other decisions with a potential impact on the environment. This commitment needs to be kept!'
The environmental organisations also protested against the idea that countries not in the EU could devise their own legal instrument for GMOs, letting the EU get away with its flawed existing legislation. Juan Lopez, GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth International said: 'The Convention needs to be respected for all citizens in Europe, not just for the new democracies.' Oksana Bilobran of the Ukrainian organisation Mama 86 added: 'The Aarhus Convention is a way to bring Europe's countries closer together after a long separation. Our governments will not easily accept a requirement to go further than the EU in public participation. The EU is effectively preventing new EU countries from having the rights we are entitled to on being heard on GMO decisions.'
The European Ecoforum, a platform of environmental organisations across Europe and the former Soviet-Union, insisted that the government officials prepare a proposal to amend the Aarhus Convention so that GMO-related decisions are as participatory as other environmentally-sensitive decisions, for adoption at the next Ministerial level meeting, in May 2005.
For more information:
John Hontelez, EEB, mobile phone: + 32 486 5121 or (from Monday October) + 32 2 289 1090
The Aarhus Convention 'on the right to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters' was signed in 1998 by 39 countries and the European Community. The Convention entered into force in October 2001. Currently countries have ratified the Convention, including five from the current EU Member States. The European Community will discuss ratification in 2004.
In its part on public participation, the Convention has a special paragraph which exempts GMO-related decisions from the specific requirements the Convention lays down for environmentally related projects or activities.
The paragraph (6.11) says: 'Each Party shall, within the framework of its national law, apply, to the extent feasible and appropriate, provisions of this article to decisions on whether to permit the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms into the environment'.
Environmental organisations protested against this exemption with a strong subsidiarity flavour. In response, the Parties of the Convention, at their first meeting, decided that it 'establishes the Working Group on Genetically Modified Organisms to examine and build upon the preparatory work undertaken by the Working Group on Genetically Modified Organisms established under the authority of the Committee on Environmental Policy regarding the possible legally binding options, including a draft amendment of the Convention. Specifically, the Working Group shall further explore what the options are for a legally binding approach to further developing the application of the Convention in the field of GMOs, including through possible instruments, to select the most appropriate options, to develop them and to put them forward for possible decision and, if appropriate, adoption by the Parties at their second meeting. The options under consideration shall be designed to further develop the requirements for public participation in decision-making on deliberate releases of GMOs, including placing on the market, and will consider developing the requirements for public participation in decision-making on certain cases of contained use of GMOs. The Working Group shall take into account:
The Guidelines on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice with respect to GMOs and any experience acquired therewith and with the Convention;
Relevant work being undertaken at the national level and in other international forums, having in mind the need to avoid duplication and promote synergies; and
The specific needs and situations of various countries;'
This working group has met twice now and many delegations in a more senior body of the Convention (meeting in Geneva 23-24 October) admitted that the group was in deadlock. France insists on withdrawing the legally binding option. Several EU countries also are in favour of a 'zero option', saying that the EU legislation was already difficult enough to negotiate and is still new. However, the EU legislation does not prescribe in detail what kind of public participation procedures EU countries need to follow. Non EU countries, especially from the former Soviet Union, insist on a legally binding approach for all Parties of the Convention and reject the idea of an instrument that would not apply to the EU.