The Escazú Agreement: Promise Made or Promise Kept?

Eight years ago, representatives from 192 states met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the world’s environmental future and left with a series of promises. This conference, hosted by the United Nations, was a follow-up to the first international convention on environmental development held in the same city in 1992. One of the most significant concrete developments directly emerging from the convention has been the Escazú Agreement. 

Involving 24 countries within the Latin American region, the Escazú Agreement is the second treaty ever created specifically to protect environmental democracy. It is uniquely centered in the idea that public participation is critical to ensuring equitable use of land and natural resources and potentially sets the stage for the future of environmental justice.

It has been hailed as groundbreaking. Amnesty International called it “a vital opportunity to establish accountability for human rights violations relating to the environment.”

For one, it is the first treaty in history to use the term “environmental human rights defenders” and outline protections for these defenders. The agreement, therefore, creates a legally binding protection for environmental activists’ rights. Specifically, it guarantees protection from threats or attack; investigation and prosecution of aggressions against them; rights to life and personal integrity; and freedom of peaceful assembly, movement, expression, and association. 

In addition, the Escazú agreement seeks to involve everyday citizens in decision-making processes that could or will impact the environment. 

This agreement encourages states to find and adopt creative solutions to the lack of citizen participation in environmental decisions. Activists hope that future programs and initiatives could include state-mandated education programs that inform affected citizens of environmentally impactful projects and policy. 

It also could raise environmental transparency and literacy surrounding environmental rights and abuses. Some have proposed free legal assistance for at-risk or affected communities and more accessible channels of communication between affected communities and political officials.

In addition to ensuring citizens are not left out of decision-making, the agreement also promises that citizens are entitled to environmentally reparative measures, such as the restoration of the affected area, the fining or prosecution of the perpetrators, and the guarantee that the harm will not be repeated.

In other words, the Escazú agreement is not just an environmental treaty. It promises participatory democracy. It gives direct rights to citizens by protecting them from violence while also opening multiple channels for justice.  

On paper, this agreement has paradigm-shifting potential. Latin American citizens have historically been left out of politics and political decision-making that impacts their daily lives, and many Latin American countries have been thrown into cycles of violence as a result of foreign interventionism. This agreement shifts some power into everyday peoples’ hands while also protecting those people and giving them stronger legal rights.

This history makes the agreement necessary. It also makes it vulnerable. An agreement that guarantees democratic rights in countries that have struggled with affording and protecting rights in the past makes its success tenuous. 

Many leaders throughout Latin America have shown and continue to show a disregard for international law. In 2016, an independent report filed with the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights accused Mexico of crimes against humanity. Mexico signed the Rome statute, which outlaws such crimes. Mexico has also signed the Escazú agreement. 

Moreover, countries that do implement the Escazú agreement into domestic law may choose to disregard it because plenty of leaders in the Latin American region have chosen and still choose to disregard domestic law. 

The World Justice Project’s 2018 report of the Rule of Law Index shows that 21/30 countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region have fairly weak, weak, or very weak adherence to the rule of law, and the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index shows that throughout the Latin American region, corruption in the public sector is only getting worse. In fact, one of the biggest corporate corruption scandals in recent history occurred in Latin America in 2015. Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht was found to have donated millions of dollars in campaign contributions to top officials, including heads of states, in Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, and more. 

If countries in Latin America have difficulty following and enforcing their own laws, can we reasonably expect leaders to enforce international treaties? 

In international treaty law, a promise made is not always a promise kept. Moreover, a promise broken is often a breach left unpunished. Will the Escazú agreement be any different? Considering current trends and past behavior of leaders in the region, it’s not clear that it will.

Maybe this sounds alarmist. It’s true that the vast majority of treaties are signed into agreement and implemented without much trouble. It is also true that the states that have signed the treaty are not states such as Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela in which citizens currently face mass arbitrary detentions, violence, and kidnappings for exercising their civic rights. This means that the states which have signed it at the very least position themselves as supportive of the rule of law and human rights.

I am both wary and hopeful. The Escazú agreement could change the game. If properly enforced and executed, it will set an example for the rest of the world to follow. 

I hope this agreement changes the way that the environment and democracy interact. I hope that activists feel less fear doing work that is essential to our planet’s health. I hope that more people are included in important environmental decision-making. I hope people at the receiving end of environmental injustice receive reparations. I hope that the perpetrators of environmental crimes are punished. 

I hope that this promise is kept.