In a promising win for environmental justice and human rights, Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies voted to ratify the Escazú Agreement on September 25. Argentina became the tenth country to ratify the region’s first environmental treaty, one shy of the 11 needed for it to come into force.
This encouraging news came the same week as the presidents of El Salvador and Chile denounced the treaty ahead of the September 26 deadline to sign it. At the same time, Belize and Dominica signed the Agreement, becoming the 23rd and 24th nations to do so.
Signing the Agreement is the first step toward ratification. The challenge now is to get one more signatory to ratify.
These recent weeks show a deep divide over the Agreement. While Argentina’s vote, as well as Belize’s and Dominica’s signatures, represent major steps forward for the treaty, the rejections by Presidents Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador show a failure to recognize the importance of this treaty.
What is the Escazú Agreement?
The Escazú Agreement is a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations and stems from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The treaty seeks to allow public access to information, promote citizen participation in environmental governance and provide access to environmental justice. It includes the world’s first binding provision to protect the human rights of environmental defenders.
The Agreement was adopted in March 2018 in Escazú, Costa Rica and opened for signature in September of that year. Although 24 of the 33 nations in the region have signed the treaty, only 10 have ratified it. As indicated in the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, ratification indicates a state’s consent to be bound by a treaty.
The protections provided for environmental defenders are particularly important for Latin America. Nearly two-thirds of the 212 killings of environmentalists took place in Latin America, including 64 alone in Colombia. Brazil (24), Mexico (18), Honduras (14) and Guatemala (12) were also particularly dangerous countries for defenders in 2019.
A near unanimous vote in Argentina
With 240 members of its Chamber of Deputies voting in favor and only four opposed, Argentina joined Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay as the ten nations that have voted to ratify the Escazú Agreement. The four deputies who voted against the Agreement’s ratification were all from former center-right President Mauricio Macri’s Juntos por el Cambio party.
While Argentina signed the agreement in September 2018, it was only in August of this year that Argentina’s Senate moved to ratify the agreement in a unanimous 70 to 0 vote. The vote by the Chamber of Deputies confirmed the treaty’s ratification.
The vote was made under heavy pressure from civil society organizations.
“In Argentina we have experienced a great increase in environmental activism in the last two years, especially with young people,” said Micaela Tomasoni, manager of education and awareness programs for the NGO Sustentabilidad Sin Fronteras. “Movements such as Fridays for the Future Argentina and Jóvenes por el Clima managed to put environmental issues on the agenda and, above all, demonstrate the interest of this sector in achieving real changes in national policy around these issues. The youth, accompanied by organizations that already have a significant track record in the fight against environmental issues, have managed to highlight the signing of the Agreement.”
With a population of 45 million, Argentina is by far the largest nation to have ratified the Agreement to date and gives hope that the Agreement will reach the necessary 11 ratifications in the months ahead.
“Argentina has made progress in the regulation and defense of environmental rights and human rights, especially in recent years,” said Tomasoni. “We have legislation that frames these rights but we are still in a phase in which we are adapting the mechanisms to give real access to these rights. We must improve the instruments of access to information without doubt and consequently the access to environmental justice.”
Chile and El Salvador Reject the Treaty
Chile, which presided over last December’s UN climate conference (COP25) and still maintains the COP presidency, is one of nine nations in the region that did not sign the agreement. While Chile was instrumental drafting the agreement under President Michelle Bachelet, things have taken a dramatic turn under the current administration.
“The agreement exposes the country to the contingency of international demands for environmental reasons, which from our point of view, particularly considering the terms of this treaty, implies a serious impact on sovereignty in matters that are fundamental for development,” said Chile’s Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand, in addressing the Foreign Relations Commission of the Lower House.
The decision by Chile was met with disdain by environmental and human rights groups, which have been critical of the current Administration for demonstrating “irresponsibly weak” leadership while it presided over last year’s climate negotiations and engaging in human rights abuses during ongoing protests in the country.
“Having been one of the countries that promoted it, Chile’s rejection of the Agreement, in my opinion, shows that there are still great problems in the countries regarding the real access of citizens to the rights that are framed within the Agreement,” said Tomasoni.
In El Salvador’s case, President Bukele objected to some clauses that he said did not conform to the reality of El Salvador as his reason for not signing the agreement. This is in spite of the fact that Article 23 of the treaty explicitly states, “No reservations may be made to the present Agreement.”
Bukele’s decision was disappointing but did not come as a surprise to those following the situation. The President has repeatedly put human rights at risk
“Bukele’s rationale is very sad and only reveals that they are not taking seriously the discussion and anlisis of the Escazú Agreement.” said César Artiga, coordinator for El Salvador’s National Promotion Team for the Escazú Agreement. “El Salvador missed a great opportunity. The president has shown a lack of commitment and a lack of interest in the environment.”
While El Salvador and Chile issued rebuttals ahead of the September 26 deadline, Belize and Dominica’s Ambassadors to the United Nations signed the treaty during the 75th session of the United States General Assembly. These last-minute moves add to the momentum for ratification.
“Our hope is that the vision of the region tilts towards the ratification of the agreement and not its rejection,” said Tomasoni. “We look forward to the eleventh country that ratifies the Agreement to achieve its entry into force.”