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Escazú Agreement: A Landmark for Environmental Rights

Indigenous and civil society representatives during a side event at COP2.

The Escazú Agreement, officially titled the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, is a historic milestone in regional environmental governance. Adopted on March 4, 2018, after four years of negotiations, it represents the first binding regional environmental treaty. Named after the city in Costa Rica where it was finalized, the agreement can potentially advance environmental protection and human rights across the region.

The Escazú Agreement’s progress has been marked by both successes and challenges. To date, 15 countries have ratified the treaty. At the heart of the Escazú Agreement are principles deeply rooted in international environmental law, particularly Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which underscores the importance of public participation and access to information and justice in environmental decision-making processes. Building upon this foundation, the Escazú Agreement seeks to empower individuals and communities to actively engage in environmental governance, thereby fostering transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

A significant aspect of the Escazú Agreement is its explicit recognition of the critical role played by environmental defenders. This is especially important in Latin America, which is one of the most dangerous regions to be an Indigenous rights and environmental defender; three out of four assassinations of environmental defenders occur there. This dire situation underscores the urgent need for protections for defenders. By requiring member States to recognize, protect, and promote the rights of environmental defenders, the agreement sends a powerful message about the importance of safeguarding human rights in the context of environmental activism. The agreement holds particular significance for Indigenous Peoples, who have been stewarding biodiversity for millennia. It includes provisions to ensure Indigenous Peoples’ meaningful participation in environmental decision-making processes and grant them access to environmental information and justice.

A significant concern regarding the treaty is the lack of explicit requirements for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for Indigenous Peoples. While the agreement promotes public participation in decision-making processes, it fails to guarantee Indigenous Peoples’ rights to FPIC, as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization Convention 169. Implementation of the Escazú Agreement has also proven uneven across signatory countries. While some have made notable strides in incorporating its principles into national legislation and policies, others have been less successful in translating its provisions into tangible actions. In particular, civil society organizations have raised concerns about limited access to environmental information and meaningful participation in decision-making processes, particularly for marginalized communities such as Indigenous Peoples.

To address these challenges and advance the objectives of the Escazú Agreement, ongoing efforts are needed at both the national and regional levels. This includes strengthening institutional capacities, enhancing public awareness and education about environmental rights, and fostering greater collaboration between governments, civil society, and Indigenous Peoples. Additionally, greater accountability and transparency in implementing the agreement, including mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on progress and addressing environmental rights violations, are needed.

Articles 5, 6, 7 and 8

Article 5 establishes the importance of facilitating access to environmental information and mandates member States to ensure transparency in disseminating such information. It mandates States to assist Indigenous Peoples in navigating information requests. Article 6 outlines the principles governing public participation in environmental decision-making processes, emphasizing inclusivity of Indigenous Peoples. Article 7 recognizes public participation in environmental decision-making processes and stresses early involvement of the public, including Indigenous Peoples, in decision-making about environmental permits, land use planning, and policy formulation, underscoring traditional methods of participation, and diverse cultural contexts. Article 8 sets the standard of access to justice in environmental matters and affirms the right to seek legal recourse when access to environmental information is denied, participation in decision-making is restricted, or projects pose environmental risks.

Most significant achievements
Every year, the parties to the agreement meet at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess progress. Some of the most important recent decisions include:

COP1 (April 20-22, 2022, Santiago de Chile):

• Establishment of rules for the election of the Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance, a key body to promote agreement implementation.
• Establishment of an ad hoc working group on human rights defenders in environmental matters highlights a commitment to protecting environmental activists.
• Inauguration of the annual forum on Human Rights Defenders in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, which fosters dialogue and
collaboration on environmental protection.

COP2 (April 19-21, 2023, Buenos Aires, Argentina):
• Election of the seven members of the Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Grenada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama, ensuring diverse representation.
• Continued work of the ad hoc working group on human rights defenders, resulting in the development of an Action Plan on Human Rights Defenders in
Environmental Matters.
• Presentation of the draft annotated index of the Action Plan, marking progress towards concrete measures for protecting environmental defenders.

COP3 (April 22-24, 2024, Santiago de Chile)
• Approval of an Action Plan on human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean.
• Ecuador, Argentina, Santa Lucia, Belize, Mexico, Uruguay, and Chile shared their national plans for implementing the treaty.
• Inclusion of public participation, including Indigenous Peoples, in the development of plans and roadmaps for the implementation of the agreement at national levels.

UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders
The establishment of the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders in 2022, with Michel Forst as its inaugural appointee, marks a historic milestone in international human rights advocacy. Central to the Special Rapporteur’s mission is addressing the alarming trend of environmental defenders being targeted, particularly in contexts where foreign companies seek to exploit natural resources on their territories. Defenders can initiate contact by submitting complaints via email, utilizing a prescribed format on the rapporteur’s website. Upon receipt, the rapporteur’s team engages with the defender to assess the credibility of threats and allegations. Should evidence corroborate the claims, the rapporteur promptly issues inquiries to the relevant State or company, allowing 60 days for response. The rapporteur has the authority to conduct country visits without requiring a State invitation, enabling swift investigation of urgent cases. In cases of extreme urgency, the rapporteur can issue immediate measures, such as relocation of defenders abroad, to ensure their safety. Learn more:

Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework
The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in 2022, sets forth critical targets and principles for global biodiversity conservation. Target 22 emphasizes inclusive decision-making advocating for the respectful acknowledgment of Indigenous Peoples’ cultures and rights over their lands, territories, resources, and Traditional Knowledge, while spotlighting the protection of environmental human rights defenders. This recognition underscores the urgent need for nations to enact comprehensive laws and policies to shield these defenders from threats, violence, and persecution. Implementation of Target 22 requires countries to integrate measures for protecting environmental defenders into their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). Nations must report on the number of environmental defenders killed, providing crucial data to assess the gravity of threats. Learn more:

Regional Human Rights Bodies
Regional human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), play crucial roles in addressing human rights violations, including those faced by environmental defenders, within their respective jurisdictions. These bodies may issue reports, recommendations, and decisions that highlight cases of attacks against environmental defenders and call for accountability.

Corporate Accountability Mechanisms
Some mechanisms focus on holding corporations accountable for human rights and environmental abuses, including those targeting defenders. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises provide a framework for responsible business conduct, including respect for human rights and environmental standards. Additionally, mechanisms such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark assess and promote corporate respect for human rights, including the rights of environmental defenders.


Indigenous and civil society representatives during a side event at COP2.

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