In recent weeks, Nicaragua and Panama have agreed to ratify the Escazú Agreement, creating renewed hope that the treaty could go into effect this year and putting pressure on countries that have yet to ratify the agreement.
The Escazú Agreement is a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations to protect the human rights of environmental defenders and provide public access to information. It is the first environmental treaty of its kind in the region.
The recent actions by Nicaragua and Panama are very positive developments, and with only four more ratifications needed, the treaty could come into force this year.
Once it takes effect, the Escazú Agreement will be a vital tool to protect human rights in the world’s most dangerous region for environmental defenders at a time when democracy is in retreat around the world, particularly in Latin America.
Nicaragua and Panama set stage for 2020
The Escazú Agreement requires eleven ratifications. While 22 nations have signed the agreement, less than a third have actually ratified it. Panama and Nicaragua join Bolivia, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts & Nevis, and Uruguay as the seven nations that have voted to ratify the agreement.
The ratification by Panama, which has long been involved in the development of the treaty, was a welcome but largely expected development.
“Panama is a country that showed great leadership leading up to the negotiation of the Agreement,” said Andrea Sanhueza, an elected-representative of the public for the Escazú Agreement. “There was a government with a willingness to ratify it and a civil society that pushed for its ratification.”
Nicaragua’s ratification comes as much more of a surprise since the country was absent from the preliminary negotiations and only recently signed the treaty in September. Nicaragua’s ratification of the Escazú Agreement is especially noteworthy given concerns over human rights in recent years.
“On the one hand, the ratification is a good thing because we know that the agreement deals with important issues. On the other hand, we have a great challenge for the Nicaraguan state to really fulfill this,” said Majorie Martinez, Legal Advisor at the Alexander von Humboldt Center in Managua.
Dr. David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, who was recently named the first champion of the Escazú Agreement, offered a more optimistic take on Nicaragua’s recent ratification:
“I think and I hope that this will be, first of all, a sign that the government is going to start taking these issues more seriously. And, second, as soon as this Escazú Agreement comes into force, people who are working so hard and so courageously in Nicaragua will have additional protection and additional tools at their disposal.”
Costa Rica has yet to ratify
While Costa Rica is one of the original signatories of the agreement, the country has yet to ratify the agreement as certain members of the country’s National Assembly have worked to delay a vote on the matter. The recent signings of its two neighboring countries could increase the pressure for Costa Rica to ratify the agreement his year.
“Costa Rica has been and continues to remain one of the strongest supporters for this treaty,” said Danielle Andrede, an elected-representative of the public for the Escazú Agreement. “We have no doubt they will ratify it.”
Boyd was also optimistic on Costa Rica’s prospects:
“Costa Rica is an international leader in so many ways in terms of environmental protection and human rights. I know there are many people in Costa Rica working very hard to get that ratification completed and I hope that happens in the near future.”
Chile continues to disappoint
While momentum continues to build for the Escazú Agreement to be approved this year, Chile, which presided over last year’s climate conference and is under the spotlight for human rights violations against its own people, has refused to join the 22 other nations that have signed the agreement. Chile played a key role in negotiations under President Michele Bachelet, but the current administration has taken a different attitude.
When asked about the treaty, COP25 President and Chile’s Minister of the Environment Carolina Schmidt criticized it:
“Signing Escazú puts at risk the internationalizing of conflicts that are and should be internal and that, rightly, the signing of the Treaty puts Chile in a situation that can cause harm to this. That is why what we are doing as a Government is to reinforce Chilean institutions to make even more progress in this area, guaranteeing the rights of all people in access to justice, in access to environmental information and citizen participation, without putting at risk that our country is harmed through the internationalization of projects.”
Schimdt’s recent comments further compromise Chile’s reputation as a regional environmental leader and are consistent with the current government’s statements saying the treaty threatens to compromise the nation’s sovereignty.
“Those comments simply don’t make any sense to me and they’re completely inconsistent with the positive experience of more than 40 countries in Europe and Asia with a similar agreement,” said Boyd. “I think Chile’s negative approach is definitely holding back progress and it’s really regrettable.”
‘Close to the finish line’
While Chile’s attitude toward the treaty is unfortunate, with only four nations needed for the treaty to go into effect, there is real hope that this could happen ahead of COP26 in Glasgow. Escazú Agreement signatories such as Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru are among the countries to keep an eye out for this year.
“I do think there is a handful of countries that are very close to the finish line here,” said Boyd. “I do genuinely hope and also believe that this agreement will come into force this year.”