Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2014, 10:56 GMT

China: Freedom of information and the environment

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 7 December 2011
Other Languages / Attachments Chinese (Full Report)
Cite as Article 19, China: Freedom of information and the environment, 7 December 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ee5cc8c2.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Foreword

It has been more than 60 years since the United Nations General Assembly states at its very first session that: "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and . . . the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated." (Resolution 59(I)). Today, governments, international and regional courts and bodies worldwide recognise the right to information as an essential foundation for a democratic society. At the international level, the right to seek and receive information is protected as an integral part of freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). At the national and local levels, the last fifteen years have seen a rapid expansion of countries adopting laws on access to information, including China. 

There is broad consensus among world leaders and civil societies that the achievement of sustainable development is largely dependent on the growth of an informed citizenry demanding public services and holding authorities to account. Furthermore, the free flow of information, which includes the existence of free, independent and professional media and civil society organisations, facilitates citizen participation in the global fight against poverty and corruption. 

As China accelerates its economic growth, the adoption of the Open Government Information Regulations in 2007 is therefore a logical and necessary step towards solidifying China's rank as a global economic power. The Regulations mandate governmental bodies to publish information and to provide access to information upon requests by the public. The further initiative taken by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in the form of the Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation) provides the Chinese people the right to know and enables them to monitor environmental behaviours and policies. Altogether, these new regulations may denote the beginning of a shift in Chinese governance culture towards greater transparency and accountability.

Local communities need access to information in order to make informed decisions to minimise environmental risks. This is crucial in preventing and mitigating the damages of industrial catastrophes, such as the devastating gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India in 1984, which resulted in thousands of deaths and long term injuries, along with lasting damage to the local communities.  The traumatic legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine still haunts the international community. In China, the 2005 Jilin chemical plants explosion in China led to six deaths, at least 70 injuries and the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. The Songhua River was severely polluted with toxic pollutants, but at the time there was almost no information on the slick's effect on cities and counties in the region.

Learning from these lessons, China is increasingly recognising that members of the public have the right to know how their environment is being shaped and to take part in decision-making, for it is their livelihoods, which are directly affected by increased chemical and pollutant releases. With access to environmental information, communities are fully aware of the risks they face and can make appropriate adjustments to maintain healthy and robust standards of living. Furthermore, the free flow of environmental information provides the setting for industrial and governmental accountability and widespread improvements in chemical safety and public health.

At this important juncture of China's environmental governance, ARTICLE 19 is pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate with CLAPV on the Access to Environmental Information project. One of the outputs of the project is this book a collection of domestic and international legislative frameworks and standards, policy models, and case studies relating to the right to access environmental information. The purpose of this book is to share best practices from around the world and the latest international developments on access environmental information. We hope that through the exchange of ideas and experiences from within and outside the country, government officials, environmental practitioners and the general public in China can work together to promote the free flow of information and build a safer environment in China and the world at large.

Copyright notice: Copyright ARTICLE 19

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