Ukraine’s Environment Faces Threat from Proposed Law

Democratic countries have taken a firm stand with the Ukrainian government over the politically motivated prosecutions of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of her government.  But it is important that these cases should be seen against wider shifts underway in Ukraine that threaten to undermine the country’s hard-earned gains in both the rule of law and public accountability

These trends are apparent in current proposals advanced in the name of reform of the current structure of environmental regulation. If approved, these proposals will have grave ramifications for Ukraine’s compliance with a number of international agreements and its commitment to fighting corruption.

Environmental NGOs have already issued clear warnings over the proposals, submitted to parliament by the president’s office as Draft Law No. 10218,  which were initially rejected by the parliamentary committee on environmental policy. But the bill is still being pushed, and is on the parliamentary agenda for the 20-24 May session; there are fairly good grounds for believing it could be passed.

The proposals aim at greater centralization, with a worrying and quite unjustified amount of power being vested with the cabinet of ministers.

One of the changes would turn into law a move first initiated in Decree No. 452/2011 and signed by President Victor Yanukovych in April 2011.  This dissolves the regional departments of the Environment Ministry.  In an appeal to the president, environmental NGOs pointed out that this entailed the “destruction of virtually the entirely state system of environmental protection created over the years of independence”.

The consequences are easy to understand if we consider the 30,000 companies in Ukraine dealing with dangerous waste.  Instead of needing to get permits from one of thirty five regional departments at the Environment Ministry, they will now be forced to deal directly with Kyiv.  “Forced” may not be the right term since only responsible companies will be inconvenienced.  Those less inclined to take proper safety measures and consider the environment are likely to find the arrangement highly convenient.  The reduced staff at the ministry will have to deal with all issues, including such permits. At best, the issue of permits will perforce turn into a largely formal exercise. At worst, it will become a source of corruption and place Ukraine’s natural environment and people’s health under even greater jeopardy.

The Environment Ministry’s ability to carry out environmental protection programs, identify and react to infringements of environmental rights would also be seriously compromised.  Vital Environmental Impact Assessments would be at best shoddy.  This is of major importance since the amendments would also effectively remove the controlling powers of the Environment Inspectorate.

The redistribution of authority would give quite unwarranted power to both the cabinet and to local state governments. It is worth recalling the extraordinary events in the summer of 2010 when the Kharkiv city authorities ignored both huge public protests and the decisions by the Environment Ministry in destroying a part of Gorky Park.

This is all in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s international obligations under the 2001 Aarhus Convention, which requires local popular participation in environmental decision making, as well as other documents.

Given the inadequate way in which the cabinet and local state administrations have exercised their current powers in this sphere, efforts to give them still greater power raise very serious questions regarding motives.

There is a manifestly absurd proposal to abolish the national commission of scientists, acaemics and others who are responsible for overseeing the “red data book” which lists Ukraine’s protected and endangered plants and animals. This task would fall instead to the cabinet and other executive bodies.

The overall picture is clear, and depressing: this draft law is aimed at weakening independent control mechanisms, and regional decision-making by competent bodies. It does so in a way that will benefit interested parties, and consolidate power in the hands of the government and local authorities.  Any attempts to explain this as being to save money should be viewed against the government’s notorious generosity in providing for its own comfort and well-being.

This removal of proper controls under the proposed redistribution of power will open the floodgates for corruption and plundering, and be yet another blow to Ukraine’s democracy. It’s been knocked around quite enough already.

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