17 May 2018
I am delighted to be here in the Basque country today to engage with this important topic. I am especially pleased that we have been joined today by the President of the Basque Country, Mr Urkullu, Ms Tejeria, the President of the Parliament and other senior representatives. Your presence is evidence of the importance of the topic and of the appreciation there is for the Office of the Ararteko.
The Office of the Ararteko is also widely renowned and highly regarded within the Ombudsman community in Europe and internationally. The Office is innovative and energetic. It has consistently brought a distinctive slant to the debate among the Ombudsman community and has highlighted topics which have been of great significance, including playing a leading part in underlining the role of the Ombudsman in respect of LGBTI rights.
It is very appropriate therefore that the Ararteko is hosting this conference here in the Basque country. The role of the Ombudsman in developing good environmental governance has been long established, but rarely the subject of such detailed consideration.
I want to start with an anecdote. Some years ago, while I was Ombudsman in Wales, I attended the Royal opening of the Welsh Assembly which follows each election. I stood in the receiving line, and shook hands with the Queen, and then Prince Charles. He asked what I did, and I explained that I was the Ombudsman. In response, he said that he expected I got a lot of complaints about planning, and especially windmills. He wasn’t wrong! I see that we have a reference to wind turbines in one of our workshops, which is very appropriate.
The work of the Ombudsman inevitably includes environmental issues. It may be in respect of local services, such as refuse collection, in planning where issues such as the development of wind farms are often raised, in public housing, in the proliferation of fish farms or in land use. The Zambian Ombudsman, for example, is dealing with complaints about the implications of mining development, where people are being moved from their homes to make way for mines and where water sources are being polluted.
The IOI is currently working to develop and strengthen our links with the UN. We are the only global Ombudsman organisation with almost 190 members in more than 90 countries worldwide. To further our quest for stronger links, and to raise awareness of the work of the IOI and the Ombudsman community worldwide, we launched the publication marking our 40th anniversary in a meeting at the UN. We will also be holding an event to mark this important anniversary at the European Region Conference in Brussels in September.
The key policy drivers for the UN at the moment are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the so-called Agenda 2030. In my speech at the launch, I observed that it is self-evident that all of the roles of the Ombudsman, in promoting good administration, in securing human rights, in promoting openness and transparency, in fighting corruption, in creating access to justice and in upholding the rule of law allow us to make a unique and vital contribution to ensuring the success of Agenda 2030, especially in the context of Goal 16, which speaks about the vital role of good governance in delivering a sustainable future. Our Offices can and do “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Providing access to an objective, free and fair means of resolving complaints, not least those about environmental matters means that the Ombudsman can ensure that environmental rights are respected, and that redress is provided and things are put right when they’re not.
Access to information about the environment is critical, if people are to be able to determine whether there is a case for complaint, and also in ensuring transparency and openness in environmental planning matters. In Ireland, I also hold the post of Commissioner for Environmental Information to enable people to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention. I review decisions by public authorities to refuse access to information on the environment. The access to environmental information regime is the first pillar of three, the other two being public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters.
The underlying assumption of the Convention is that people at large should be able to participate in planning for a sustainable future, and in order to do so, should be able to inform themselves about environmental matters. Making information available in this way enables people and communities to participate in an informed way in the decisions affecting their futures.
I see requests about a wide variety of topics, from waste incineration to the use of the Government Lear jet. It’s fair to say that environmental and community activists can be very creative in their use of the AIE regime. They work very hard to stretch the definitions of environmental information and public authority.
Many important issues are brought to public attention in this way, such as the loss of many tens of thousands of salmon from fish farms, the routing of power cables and the infrastructure associated with the development of data centres and of course, information on wind farms.
The third pillar of the convention, on access to justice, is where the traditional Ombudsman role comes to the fore. The President of the High Court in Ireland was recently reported as remarking that access to the court was only available to the very wealthy, or to paupers who could get legal aid. Now in fact, while many people do represent themselves in the courts, the cost of hiring lawyers can be very expensive, and even if you do represent yourself, the possibility of having to pay the other side’s costs if you lose can be a serious disincentive. This is where the Ombudsman, with free access and an objective, inquisitorial approach, can provide access to justice which might otherwise be denied.
Today and tomorrow, we will hear many examples of this work which will both resonate with us when we have already had similar cases ourselves or also alert us to areas of work and approaches we can seek to embrace in the future.
The benefits of a good environment will be very familiar to those who know the Basque country. With its beautiful scenery, vibrant and historic cities, wonderful culture, the best food in the world and warm and generous people, we know that we undertake our work in a very attractive setting.
My thanks again to the Ararteko and his team for putting this excellent programme together. I look forward to learning and being inspired, so that we can all go from here to redouble our efforts to build a sustainable future for all.