Fourteen Latin American and Caribbean countries made history at the UN General Assembly on September 27 by signing the Escazú Agreement, a regional accord on public participation and access to information and justice in environmental affairs. It is the first region-wide agreement of its kind and has been touted a big step forward in recognising the rights of environmental defenders. Signatories now need to ratify the Agreement internally before it can enter into force.
The region has been plagued by urgent problems: impunity for crimes against frontline land and environmental defenders has been widespread, with activists slaughtered in record numbers; governments have failed to uphold laws respecting communities’ right to be consulted on the impacts of extractive and infrastructure projects; and information disclosure on the part of many national and international companies has been grossly inadequate.
So what will the Escazú Agreement change?
The Escazú Agreement is key for the business & human rights agenda. In line with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Human Rights (UNGPS), company operations should comply with national and international human rights standards, including respecting human rights defenders. Therefore, once the Agreement enters into force, corporations must comply with this instrument. But private and State-owned companies operating in Latin America, both national and transnational, should make changes in their social and environmental approaches by addressing past and current harm their commercial activities have inflicted. For instance, article 6 of the agreement (part 12) encourages States to “take the necessary measures through legal or administrative frameworks” to not only enable civil society access to environmental information that private institutions have, but to allow them to learn about the “risks and effects on human health and the environment” that these operations entail.
The Agreement also stipulates that “In accordance with its capacities”, each State shall “encourage public and private companies, particularly large companies to prepare sustainability reports that reflect their social and environmental performance. This means that companies should do more and better human rights due diligence and compliance on cases in which victims allege corporate responsibility. Impact assessments must go beyond environmental issues as understood by States and companies as “collateral damage” at the altar of development. In Latin America, this includes providing sanctions to companies that operate unpunished for contaminating water sources, privatise its access for vast groups of the population, destroy traditional seeds and crops and displace entire groups that lose their livelihoods due to energy, agriculture, mining or oil industrial projects.
The Escazú Agreement, also known as the Agreement on Principle 10, is one of the most important environmental instruments of the last 20 years and is the first one adopted by Latin American and Caribbean countries. This road, which began at the Rio+20 summit in 2012, was one of the responses given by the countries of the region to the alarming increase in environmental conflicts and the reactions provoked in people and the environment by global phenomena like climate change.
It’s no coincidence that the agreement was created as the international community embarks on an ambitious path towards sustainable development. There’s no doubt that the full application of Principle 10 is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda [for sustainable development] and that it will be a fundamental tool to consolidate the climate change governance. It guarantees that every person, especially those excluded or in vulnerale situations, has reliable access to information, can participate effectively in decision-making processes, especially those whose livelihoods are impacted, and can have access to justice to allow a more fair distribution of the costs and benefits of development.
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[This article originally appeared on dialogochino.net]