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Imrich Vozar (left) of Via Iuris visits Short Mountain Landfill in Eugene in 2011

Imrich Vozar (left) of Via Iuris and Maria Rosario Mayi (right) of INSAPROMA visit Short Mountain Landfill in Eugene in 2011

We recently received great news from our Slovak partners at Via Iuris concerning a controversial landfill project in the town of Pezinok.  Community members and municipal officials oppose the project because it is located just about one-quarter mile from the center of their town. Furthermore, the landfill was not proposed for handling local solid waste, but to accept waste produced in other regions of Slovakia and from outside the country.  Pezinok has an excellent recycling program and capacity to handle its own solid waste. The community’s grassroots effort to block the landfill project has gained international attention and recognition.

The Court of Justice of the European Union issued a decision declaring that Slovak state officials improperly withheld key information from community members and municipal officials during the course of the licensing proceeding.  The licensing authority refused to release a copy of the land use decision (a critical document in the licensing proceeding) until after the project developer started construction.  The Court strongly affirmed the right of citizens to participate in environmental decisions early in the process when there are options available and effective public participation can occur. The Court also stated that the licensing authority’s refusal to make the decision public was not justified by protection of commercial or industrial information. The case will now return to the Slovak Supreme Court for further decisions on the fate of the landfill.   The project has been temporarily suspended since 2010, but the European Court’s decision provides some hope that the landfill will be cancelled permanently.

Slovak newspapers reported the optimistic response of Pezinok’s mayor: “The decision of the court fills us with hope that the years-long effort [to achieve] a healthy environment in the town will be successful[.]”   Advocates around Europe are lauding the decision, as well.

Congratulations to our friends at Via Iuris!

Liz Mitchell
Staff Attorney

No, it’s not a Star Wars character.  Today is International Right to Know Day and advocates around the world are highlighting the right of citizens to access information and touting the benefits of open and transparent government.  The right to know, or “R2K,” is a cross-cutting right that benefits all of us because it encourages governments to be more accountable and applies to all kinds of information that affect our daily lives from social services, to public education, to budget expenditures.

With respect to information about the environment, it has been nearly two decades since R2K was recognized in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  Many countries have enacted laws that permit citizens to obtain information held by government agencies and other public entities — including information that pertains to the environment.  In the past year, new freedom of information laws have been adopted in Nigeria, Liberia, and El Salvador (among others).  Many of ELAW’s partners have been instrumental in promoting and enforcing these laws.

An emerging area of R2K that I am working on involves efforts to gain greater transparency in the flow of public and private money to mining, oil, and gas development.  Several resource-rich countries have or are considering enacting laws that require public disclosure of the terms of contracts and leases that are issued for mining, oil, and gas projects, and also require a public accounting of revenue received from such projects.  The United States (through the Dodd-Frank Act) and European Union are taking concrete steps to require resource extraction companies to disclose all payments that are made to foreign governments related to mining, oil, and gas projects.  With this information in hand, members of the public and public-interest advocacy groups can follow the “money trail” and combat fiscal mismanagement and corruption.  They can ensure that the revenue governments obtain from mining, oil, and gas development is used to benefit the public, and is not squirreled away in the personal bank accounts of government officials.

It is difficult to be an effective environmental advocate without access to information.  Governments collect and obtain information about air and water pollution, toxic chemical releases, public health, and much more.  As citizens, it is our right to access this information so that we can demand government accountability, and influence decisions that will affect our lives, our communities, and the global environment.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

ELAW welcomes Imrich Vozár, who arrived this week from Slovakia for a 10-day ELAW Fellowship. Imrich is one of six staff lawyers working for VIA IURIS in one of two offices, in Banská Bystrica and Pezinok.

This is Imrich’s first visit to the U.S. He is staying at the ELAW House and enjoying new and interesting things – like spotting a raccoon on the Willamette River bike trail and the possibility of purchasing items, in bulk, at the nearby supermarket.

Imrich will have the chance to explore Oregon’s beauty spots – and grocery stores – and also spend many hours working to advance public participation, transparency in decision-making, and access to information back home.

For example, Imrich is working with colleagues at VIA IURIS to help citizens in Pezinok challenge a proposed landfill which, tragically, would be located just over 400 yards from the center of town.  Read more about this case here.

Imrich is also helping VIA IURIS prepare to participate in the fourth session of the Meeting of the Parties of the Aarhus Convention, to be held in Moldova later this month.  The Arhus Convention is a major international agreement that calls for access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters.

In October last year, VIA IURIS and other NGOs successfully petitioned the Aarhus Committee to find that Slovakia violated Article 6 of the Convention by not allowing sufficient public participation before construction of the Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant.

During his ELAW Fellowship, Imrich will share his expertise, collaborate with ELAW partners around the world, and advance his organization’s work calling for an accountable judiciary, accountable public officials, and responsible citizens in Slovakia.

Welcome Imrich!

Glenn Gillis
Information Technology Manager

The Mekong Region in Southeast Asia is seeing an unprecedented boom in hydropower development to support the emerging economies in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Laos alone, government officials are planning and rapidly moving forward with large-scale dam projects to provide electricity for export to neighboring Thailand.

Not only do large-scale dams cause significant social and ecological impacts, but these projects also require lengthy transmission lines to carry electricity through the region. One such corridor runs through the Udon Thani province in northeastern Thailand. Several years ago, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) proposed two 500-kV transmission lines to carry power from the Lao border to a substation within Thailand.

Although Thailand’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to access information and participate in decisions that affect them, the government of Thailand approved the transmission line projects without the benefit of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and without consulting local communities. The project has generated considerable concern among local communities, where families grow rice and fruit for sustenance and income. Many people were unaware of the project until EGAT announced the final transmission line route.

Advocates at EnLAW in Thailand, a public-interest environmental law NGO and ELAW partner, are assisting community members who live and maintain farms in the path of the transmission lines. The electricity being generated in Laos and brought to Thailand is not destined for these rural communities, but for urban dwellers and large-scale development projects — like a nearby potash mine. Some families have refused to sell their land to EGAT because the company was not offering a fair price. Others do not want to leave land that has been in their family for generations and are concerned about farming directly beneath powerful electricity transmission lines.

On May 25th, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission issued a resolution asking EGAT to pause construction to allow time to negotiate with affected landowners to reach an agreement over the fair value of their land. The Commission criticized EGAT for demolishing homes without prior permission and expressed concern that EGAT’s activities were inciting violence and conflict with landowners. EGAT ignored the resolution and, just a few days later, attempted to enter onto one family’s land with heavy machinery and equipment to begin constructing a transmission line tower in the family’s rice paddy. Over a dozen people, including the landowners and a group of visiting university students, gathered to block EGAT. Regrettably, EGAT called in local police to forcibly remove the peaceful protesters and many were arrested. EnLAW attorney Montana Daungprapa was visiting the community at the time and witnessed the violence committed against people who simply want to protect their land and livelihoods, and receive fair compensation for their land rights.

Montana and her colleagues at EnLAW are assisting these individuals with their defense and with efforts to help those who are being impacted by the transmission line project gain fair compensation. The National Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate the situation. EnLAW’s persistence in this case is providing justice to landowners. Their work is critical to promoting greater accountability and transparency on the part of the Thai government and to protecting the rights of rural and impoverished citizens.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

In 1766, Sweden became the first country to pass a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA).  This month, the state of Selangor in Malaysia became the most recent jurisdiction to do so.  Selangor’s FOI law was enacted in spite of initial objections that it might be prohibited by the Malay federal government’s Official Secrets Act.

Theiva Amarthalingam

Theiva Amarthalingam of CAP

ELAW partner Theivanai Amarthalingam at the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) confirmed passage of the new law. She wrote:

“…the State of Selangor in Malaysia is the first state in the country to have the Freedom of Information Act in place. The Act was passed for the disclosure of information pertaining to State documents and where Federal concerns are involved and classified under the Official Secrets Act, that cannot be revealed.”

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) reports:  “This Enactment is a historic step toward transparency in governance and government accountability…” The CIJ also criticizes the law as lacking transparency in the appointment of the State Information Board and not stipulating that fees be kept low.

Theiva noted:  “the point is, at least one State Government is taking the step in the right direction and in the coming months, [I] am sure once the Act is put to the test, the flaws will be seen. And hopefully amended.”

Theiva also pointed out that the Malaysian state of Penang is currently undergoing a public hearing process for their proposed Freedom of Information Act.  Perhaps the new law in Selangor will act as a catalyst and we’ll see access to information laws such as this one spread throughout Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Glenn Gillis
Information Technology Manager

ELAW advocates from around the world are fighting to hold governments accountable for including legally required information on official websites.

EPL Staff, Liza Aleksyeyeva (far right)

Recently, Ukraine’s Environment-People-Law (EPL) advocate Liza Aleksyeyeva wrote to ELAW, “I am happy to share with you the following news. On August the 30th, District Administrative Court of the city of Kyiv ruled on the case brought by Environment-People-Law against the Ministry of Environmental Protection of Ukraine regarding ministerial official web-page. In the lawsuit… EPL claimed that the absence of information on main responsibilities of the departments of the Ministry, on multilateral environmental agreements, reports on their implementation and enforcement, and the state of realization of environmental programs is illegal. The court declared defendants’ actions to be illegal and ordered the Ministry to change its webpage in order to comply with the law. Furthermore, the court ordered the Ministry to report to the court within one month after the decision becomes effective as to what they have done to execute the decision.”

In their arguments to the court EPL relied upon access to information principles established in the “Aarhus Convention” (officially, the “UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters”) to which Ukraine is a signatory.

EPL also drew the court’s attention to the lack of electronic access to national assessments on the state of the environment, nor to any lists or registers of polluters, registers of permitting decisions and many others.

ELAW partners around the world responded with congratulations and descriptions of similar problems in their own countries.

One advocate from the Philippines wrote, “What an inspired case and a nice victory!! We too have so many laws requiring the production of so many of these plans and annual status reports and they are never on websites. One just has to assume they don’t have a plan as required by law, or if they do, they don’t want anyone to measure them against the plan.”

Another from Russia wrote, “This is very important victory for promotion of the Aarhus principles especially in the EECCA countries!”

Carla Garcia Zendejas, an ELAW partner in Mexico, shared the positive outcome of her efforts to require accountability from the Mexican government for placing required information on its websites:

“This is a marvelous victory!! I should share some of our experience in Mexico with the government’s mandatory requirement for publication of a broad list of information online. I have been part of efforts in the state of Baja California to push for the proper implementation of the municipal and state websites by carrying out citizen monitoring and then grading of the government’s work. Which is then presented statewide in press conferences –the 9th was held last August. (This all comes after the evolution of our Transparency Law and the inclusion of language pertaining to electronic and digital access to public information in our Constitution as well.)

It has only been through this public pressure and systematic monitoring of each of their mandatory responsibilities to present: employee names, assignments, salaries, budgets, rules, memos, meeting minutes, role call, voting history, agreements, programs, bidding processes, annual reports, financial reports, income, expenses, suppliers, and many other data that the websites have improved.

I congratulate your efforts and this great victory and hope that before long you may see needed changes!”

These victories in Ukraine and Mexico are just a sample of the important work ELAW partners are doing around the world to ensure access to the information we need to make informed decisions about our environment.

Glenn Gillis
ELAW IT Manager

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