By Satya Tripathi, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Head of the New York Office at UN Environment
The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean was adopted on 4 March 2018 at Escazú, Costa Rica, and opens for signature of the 33 countries of the region on 27 September 2018 at United Nations headquarters in New York, in the framework of the Treaty Event. The adoption follows the launch of the Environmental Rights Initiative by UN Environment in Brazil, in September 2018, highlighting the plight of environmental defenders in the region.
The Escazú Agreement is the region’s first environmental agreement and the only one of its kind in the world, since it includes specific provisions regarding defenders of human rights in environmental matters. It is the first legal instrument to have emerged thus far from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).
The Agreement seeks to ensure that all persons have access to timely and reliable information, can participate in an effective way in the decisions that affect their lives and their environment, and can access justice in environmental matters, thereby contributing to the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
At the meeting, several countries confirmed that they would sign the agreement. These are: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay.
The world is facing several fundamental challenges, such as climate change and the depletion of natural resources, which require profound transitions towards sustainable development. Promoting environmental democracy through the effective engagement of civil society, including non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples, academia and other stakeholders, reinforces and complements the ability of governments to address these problems. That is why, in 2017, UN Environment agreed on the need for a common and coherent approach to promoting greater protection for environmental defenders, with the development of UN Environment’s Environmental Defenders Policy, in close consultation with human rights experts and civil society organizations.
The Environmental Defenders Policy promotes greater protection for individuals and groups who are defending their environmental rights, and identifies solutions to mitigate the abuse of environmental rights which affects a growing number of people in many parts of the world.
UN Environment seeks to support the upholding of environmental rights and opposes the growing wave of violence against environmental defenders as well as the prevailing impunity with which these acts are being committed. UN Environment will assist states to address crucial issues related to environmental rights, and encourage states to recognize and support the role of ordinary citizens in environmental protection, indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as support the implementation of and adherence to the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 gave an important impetus for environmental protection, the development of environmental legislation and the establishment of related institutions.
In line with the processes of democratization that characterized that decade in the region, some of these reforms included instances of citizen participation, both through advisory councils and through formal instances in the evaluation of projects and the formulation of standards, among others. In this way, today, rights and duties for environmental protection and sustainable development are enshrined in most of the political constitutions of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Likewise, all countries in the region currently have a ministry, secretariat or equivalent dedicated to the environment, and most have issued general or framework law on the environment. To these general laws, many of which have among their guiding principles those of the Rio Declaration of 1992, a wide range of complementary legislation is added.
Similarly, judges have been assuming an active role in defense of the environment in cases of violation of environmental rights. Their work allowed the consolidation of a jurisprudence in environmental matters and led to the establishment of new principles of environmental law, such as the principle in dubio pro natura and the principle of non-regression.
Despite these legal advances and the increasing role of the judiciary, between 2002 and 2013, 900 persons died defending the environment and their land in 35 countries. In 2016 almost 200 environment defenders were killed around the world. Sixty percent of these murders took place in Latin America. In 2017, the trend worsened, with the killing of four environmental defenders a week, according to the non-governmental organization Global.
Violations of environmental rights have a profound impact on a wide variety of human rights. Tolerance of intimidation by environmental defenders undermines basic human rights and environmental rule of law.
In addition to the Environmental Defenders’ Policy, on 3 September we launched a global Environmental Rights Initiative, with the aim to bring environmental protection nearer to the people through assisting state and non-state actors to promote, protect and respect environmental rights. The initiative seeks to help people better understand and defend their rights and assist states in safeguarding environmental rights.
UN Environment will also continue to work with judges around the world to develop and implement environmental constitutional provisions that will secure environmental rights.
UN Environment is also largely encouraging civil society groups, faith-based organizations, law and policymakers, judges, prosecutors, national human rights institutions, regional human rights organizations, and citizens, indigenous and local communities and their leaders, to be at the core of this initiative.
Therefore, the work of the UN Environment on environmental rights, which began more than two decades ago, takes on renewed importance in this context, when it is necessary to work more than ever to strengthen the capacities to develop and implement laws that protect environmental rights.
The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean is a major step in this regard.
As UN Environment highlighted when the Agreement was approved, it is not "just a renewed commitment to environmental protection. It is an opportunity to grant environmental rights the same legal status as human rights." This is why we encourage all countries in the region to sign this landmark agreement and approve it at the national level to have the 11 ratifications necessary for the entry into force, and even more so that all the countries of the region are parties of this instrument.
This statement was delivered on Thursday, 27 September 2018 at the Open Society Foundation in the occasion of the Treaty Event, organized by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Governments of Costa Rica and Chile and the following organization: The Access Initiative, Open Society Foundation, Namati, World Resources Institute, Amnesty International, Civicus, and Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR).