The protection and preservation of climate is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed by the world community. There have been several efforts to curtail harmful practices throughout the globe.
Yet, these are not enough, as deeper realities such as threats to environmental activists, lack of public participation in environmental decision-making, and lack of access to environmental information continue to hinder progress in this area.
Luckily, a binding agreement that addresses these issues and attempts to counter them exists regionally in Latin America and the Caribbean region. In March 2022, the newly-elected Chilean government, led by President Gabriel Boric, signed the Escazu Agreement.
It is an environmental agreement in whose promotion Chile played a leading role. But as it was opened for signatures in 2018, the then Chilean government backtracked and decided against signing the treaty.
It argued that the agreement contains ambiguities that will make it hard to implement, will threaten scrutiny in international courts and generate local and regional conflicts.
The experts largely rejected the argument, but there might be some truth to it. Environment and International law are sensitive and complex issues.Chilean President, Gabriel Boric, signed the Escazu Agreement on 18 March 2022
Presently, enough countries have ratified the Escazu agreement to make it legally binding. The signing of the agreement by the new Chilean government proves that even with real challenges, international progress on environmental matters is possible.
The Escazu agreement is an important milestone for the Americas. However, it is time for the world to follow suit.
WHAT IS THE ESCAZU AGREEMENT?
Officially called “the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” is commonly known as the Escazu Agreement.
It is a treaty meant to ensure the right to access to environment-related information, public participation in environmental decision-making, access to environmental justice, and to protect the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.
The parties adopted the agreement in Escazu, Costa Rica, in 2018. Originating from the 2012 United Nations United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, it took more than five years of talks and negotiations to prepare the treaty.
It is the first binding treaty related to the environment in the region. The agreement entered into force in April 2021. Currently, there 12 out of 24 signatories have ratified the treaty.
One of the salient features of this agreement is that it addresses some of the core impediments that occur in implementing climate-friendly laws and programs. That is a lack of freedom of information, discouragement of public participation, and targeting of activists.
Moreover, the agreement enshrines the link between human rights and environmental protection. It obligates the parties to provide legal empowerment and protection to people acting for the environment. The safety of civil environmental activists is a central provision in the agreement.
It also recognizes the importance of transparency and freedom of information related to the environment. Powerful actors can manipulate and control information to keep their interests safe.
Hiding or distorting the truth regarding environmental realities can promote particular interests. This problem needed an explicit legal solution which this agreement provides.
It further recognizes that the people have to be empowered to decide on environmental issues. It is an effective way to generate public interest.
What is the use of information if the masses do not feel empowered, interested, and responsible enough to employ knowledge to impact policy action?
Still, it has its criticisms. For instance, its effectiveness has been questioned owing to the vagueness of its implications for the state.
However, even with shortcomings, the primary intent of the agreement, which is to achieve a safer and better future and a stable present, is commendable and requires international legal recognition.
Legal empowerment of people, human rights, and enshrining public participation and justice are much-needed values. Particulars can be debated, but a consensus upon the principles will be good enough for our world at the moment.
Development of Escazu Agreement in the Americas
The peculiar historical, social, and political factors in the Americas, and their relation to the environment, played a significant role in creating the regional push for the agreement.
The historical landscape of the Americas can be construed as being characterized by the dynamics of exploitation and resistance. The Europeans colonized these lands to exploit their resources.
After many countries achieved independence, they remained under the rule of an entrenched elite that continued many of the colonial practices. They continued to exploit the people and the resources of the land.
Later, the region became dominated by American corporate interests that made much profit from the corruption of the ruling elites and their exploitation of the people.
They influenced American governments to support regimes friendly to the business and topple those that weren’t. The US efforts to politically control the continent only intensified during the Cold War.
While all that was going on, socio-political movements challenging the exploitation also kept arising. They even thrived and succeeded in some places. This underlying dynamic continues to this day.
Latin America is the most dangerous region for environmental activists. Hundreds of environmental activists have been assassinated throughout the Americas. But, notably, hundreds continue to emerge!
The conflict between interest groups has continuously led to violence, oppression, and resistance. The push by local political and civil society leaders for the Escazu agreement was a part of an age-old struggle to secure the rights of people, their land, and the environment from the continuous assault of corporate interests.
Global Need for Escazu-like Agreement
Global Witness recorded 227 assassinations of activists worldwide only in 2020. Hundreds more were harassed and silenced. The majority of them were in the Americas. Granted, South America is the most dangerous place for environmental activists.
However, some other regions are not far behind. Threats to the lives and livelihoods of civil and environmental activists exist in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa as well.
A study that analyzed 2743 global cases reported that environmental defenders face high rates of criminalization (20%), physical violence (18%), and assassinations (13%).
The historical experience of the Americas evokes the notion that it is pretty similar to the experiences of African and Asian nations. People everywhere have fought for their rights against powerful and often hegemonic entities who stifled people’s rights for their gain.
An agreement protecting essential provisions for the protection of the environment will be a natural part of these struggles. Moreover, misinformation regarding the environment can be a threat anywhere.
And as easy as it is to spread disinformation it has become necessary to legislate against it, especially in matters of the environment as it has existential significance for the human race.
Needless to point out, many regions lack institutions of democratic public participation in important decisions, including environmental matters.
People everywhere should be enfranchised to make choices concerning their collective future. Hence, a pact similar to the Escazu is required globally.
How it may be achieved?
The contents of the Escazu agreement might be globalized by replicating them in other regions through various regional organizations such as ASEAN, SAARC, and ECOWAS.
Or, it could be an international agreement like the Kyoto and Paris agreements. The former option is more feasible though, as regionalism has been gaining over globalism; a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To make it possible, some countries will have to take the leadership role and commit to it. For instance, countries such as Pakistan in South Asia, Singapore in Southeast Asia, and UAE in the Middle East have shown enough resolve to tackle environmental issues.
They may take it further to adopt regional leadership on environmental issues. Also, challenges will be easier to deal with regionally as negotiations between a limited number of state actors will be more manageable.
It is important to note that the Escazu treaty did have a precedent. The Aarhus Convention is a regional agreement that entered into force in 2001. The convention contains three pillars: Access to information, public participation in decision making, and access to justice.
It has 47 parties. The signatories are European and Central Asian states. The existence of two precedence makes it easier to gauge and study potential challenges.
A multitude of challenges must be expected. Most importantly, not everyone within a region will agree to ratify. As in South America, where countries such as Brazil and Colombia have stalled the ratification process for various reasons, not everyone will instantly agree.
As the Chilean example shows, it will take time and hard work to bring nations on board. Leading nations might have to bear an extra financial burden for these efforts.
Still, an agreement on the principles of the treaty is the first necessary step after which the parties might go further. It will create a dialogue and an awareness that can slowly push governments to adopt more measures for the environment.
With the war in Ukraine at its peak, the focus of the most powerful members of the international community has yet again shifted to traditional, state-centered security.
Despite that, as the effects of environmental degradation become near and clear, the calls for attention to the climate will continue to remain relevant in international politics.
To conclude, environmental politics needs to be approached with wisdom, precaution, and genuine dialogue. Any attempt to enforce binding obligations upon sovereign countries with varied socio-political realities is bound to face legitimate resistance from a diverse set of actors.
*The writer is a Research Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight and Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies
*The views, in this article are the writers’ own and do not necessarily represent the institution’s views.