Lack of Government Support for the Ratification of the Escazú Agreement

President Duque signed the International Treaty on the protection of the Environment- Escazú – in December 2019. This was in response to agreements that he had made with the social protesters in 2019. The Escazú Agreement although signed in 2019 was still waiting for ratification by Congress. It was presented last week, on 17 June 2021, for ratification. However, the Congressional session ended with a postponement of the vote. However, if this is not voted on before 20 June 2021, the project runs the risk of being shelved.

Escazú Agreement

The Escazú Agreement is a fundamental step forward in terms of protection of the environment and of environmental defenders. It emerged in response to the 2012 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Colombia has some of the most important bio-diverse regions of the world, places like the Amazon and the Chocó. It is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental human rights defenders. According to Global Forest Watch, Colombia is the sixth country in the world with the highest level of deforestation. For these reasons this is an exceptionally important International Treaty for Colombia to sign.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated: ‘the Escazú Agreement …’provides a cornerstone for environmental democracy, international cooperation and multilateralism and that must be at the centre of efforts to build back better using a human rights-based approach.’ She went on to emphasized that ‘the Escazú Agreement is the first of its kind in the world, since it not only protects human rights but also guarantees that all people have the right to a healthy environment, to participate, and to access information and justice in environmental matters’.  

Colombia has suffered an incredible number of attacks and killings of environmental defenders, including indigenous, peasant farmer and Afro-Colombian community leaders. Escazú is a legal tool that can help to protect the activists and the environment.

Broadly speaking the Escazú Agreement protects four key rights:

  • access to information on environmental projects
  • public participation in environmental matters
  • effective justice to settle disputes between businesses and communities
  • protection of environmental leaders

Business unions and some political sectors have opposed its ratification by the Congress of the Republic, with arguments such as the loss of sovereignty, legal uncertainty or its supposedly negative effect on private investment.

The Escazú Agreement introduces a new approach to environmental issues, that of environmental democracy. Rather than seeing environmental issues as a cost and barrier to economic growth, this new perspective focuses on the consideration of human rights and citizen participation as necessary requirements to ensure a prosperous economy and guarantee the right to a healthy environment. In other words, it incorporated the well-being of the communities in terms of a dignified life. This approach also makes it a powerful instrument for conflict prevention.

Central precepts include transparency, access to public information and citizen participation in environmental matters. In terms of citizen participation, environmental authorities must consider and respond to the observations and reports submitted by the public on environmental impacts of projects, indicating whether these were accepted in the final decision-making, or not taken into account and, if so, why. From this point of view, the Agreement does not produce legal uncertainty as the business lobby are suggesting but rather it strengthens it.

Escazú also attributes to vulnerable groups special attention from the State. In a country like Colombia, characterised by wide socioeconomic gaps, deepened by the pandemic and by regressive government policies, favourable actions for excluded groups in relation to the benefits of the economic growth and state action are determining factors. It also constitutes a tool for the protection of environmental defenders.

Escazú also grants a new status to environmental criteria as benchmarks for decision-making in relation to Developmental Models, in an attempt to balance rather than subordinating them to the objectives of economic growth. In Colombia, the environmental sector lost political, institutional and financial weight in government priorities, when under former President Uribe mining and hydrocarbons became the locomotive of the country’s growth in the National Development Plans.

UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights, Marcos Orellana states the Escazú Agreement provides citizens and communities with the tools needed to hold States accountable for protecting and fulfilling the fundamental right to a healthy environment.

Colombia and the Escazú Agreement.

President Iván Duque signed the Escazú Agreement in 2018, and he made ratification one of the commitments to the social protesters, during the dialogues to end the 2019 National Strike.  For the Escazú to enter into force in Colombia it has to be ratified by Congress. The Government presented the initial bill with the signature of five ministries for urgent processing to Congress in July 2020. Senator Ernesto Macías, Uribista[1] and one of the closest Senators to the government, sent a letter to the Ministry of the Interior asking it to stop the ratification process for this treaty.

According to a former Environment Minister Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, the private sector had been very successful in blocking Escazú. Apparently, President Duque signing the Escazú Agreement had surprised the business community because they had regular meetings with him, but he had not mentioned this. Following the presentation of the Bill by the government the business lobby came out strongly against its passing into law.

Yet Internationally their is a recognition that treaties like Escazú are essential if we are to develop a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlights the need to promote environmental and human rights. ECLAC’s Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena talking about recovery from COVID-19 said ‘we must seriously face the fact that there will be no development or economic recovery if we do not consider sustainabilitySociety has expressed itself loud and clear: we want a different future, a future that does not take us back to where we were before. We want growth to support equality and equality to support growth, and we want to do this with environmental sustainability and our societies’ participation.’ (highlights added by this author)

Despite the government submitting the Bill with a note for urgent processing it appears that since then it has done little to support its progress through the Congress. Processing of the Bill has been delegated to second-level officials from the Ministries of the Environment and Foreign Affairs.

According to a report by “La Silla Vacia following the presentation of Escazu, they consulted seven congressmen in the Congressional Commissions responsible for processing the Bill, and they all told the reporter the same story, that they have not felt the usual strong lobby from the Government when it wants Congress to approve projects. In fact Congressmen from the Democratic Center Party – the government party -, Radical Change and the Conservative Party all signed a document asking Congress not to approve the Escazú Agreement.

Even the Ambassadors of Germany, Norway and Sweden sent a public letter to the President confirming their support for ratification of Escazú.

The passing into law of Escazu was one of the agreements made with the social protesters, the government’s failure to prioritise its ratification is therefore worrying and cannot give a positive message to the current protesters. But nor does it give a positive message globally. President Ivan Duque has said all the “right” things in relation to the environment. But the difficulty occurs in terms of implementation. Duque has prided himself on being an international environmental leader, for example he promised reforestation by planting 180 million trees, of which, not even a third have been planted.

Social protests are still active. Escazú must be voted on before 20 June 2021 as it must pass its first debate to survive. The Government could win a point with those protesting on the streets if it achieves ratification of the international treaty in its first debate. Failing to fulfill its promise from previous agreements with the social protesters (in 2019) would set a problematic precedent.

[1] Uribista is someone who supports the policies of former president Alvero Uribe Velez.