05/06/2011 02:08 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2011

Striking a Blow for Environmental Justice in Europe

In America, we think the grass is always greener. We assume that Europe is more civilized and sophisticated than we are. This turns out to be entirely wrong when it comes to access to justice for citizens, in which the United States is a model.

If you're a citizen of the EU and the EU violates environmental law, what can you do about it?

It turns out you cannot go to the courts in your own country because the EU cannot be sued in those courts. Also, you can't go to the courts of the EU, because for the last 30 years the EU has refused to be sued in its own courts.

This means that when the EU violates environmental law, you as a citizen have no forum, you have no access, and you have no justice. A democracy which refuses to allow citizens to challenge the government when it violates the law is an incomplete democracy.

ClientEarth is trying to change that. This week we celebrate a victory at an international tribunal, which has ordered the EU to change those policies, and its refusal to give access. It is now up to the courts of the EU to grant access, or to put the entire EU in violation of international law. Our victory should force open the doors of the courts to environmental groups throughout Europe.

Also in the last few days, great strides have been made in forcing the European Commission to meet its transparency obligations outside of the courts. For four years the Commission had refused to make public letters submitted by Porsche regarding carbon dioxide emissions from cars. In 2010 we added our legal muscle to Friends of the Earth's calls for openness, proving the illegality of the Commission's secretive and undemocratic approach. In the end, the threat of court action convinced the Commission to disclose documents in April 2011 that should have been public from the outset.

These wins are testament to the potential of law to make real change, in the practices of the institutions that serve us and the environment they are charged to protect. Now we want to make sure that others fighting for environmental justice have the tools they need to exercise their rights.

In pursuit of this goal, we have launched a centre providing the legal expertise necessary to unlock the possibilities offered by environmental law.

ClientEarth's EU Aarhus Centre is named after a little known but extremely important international law: the Aarhus Convention. In force since 2001, the convention sets out your right to information, confirms your right to participate in decision-making and establishes your right to access to justice in environmental matters. It is the legal backbone of the arguments that have seen the Porsche letters disclosed and the courts told to allow citizens access.

The centre will provide NGOs and citizens' groups with the legal support they need to make full use of the rights afforded them by the Aarhus Convention. We hope that the EU institutions recognize the benefits of engaging with the centre: while providing assistance to green groups, we also aim to help the institutions exercise, in reality, the rights they already recognize in law.

We are confident that the Centre will have real impact in promoting the principles of an open society and good governance.

So: if you're a citizen of the EU and the EU violates environmental law, what can you do about it? We hope that soon the answer will be 'very much more.'