Principle 10: what can we learn from its regional implementation through the Escazú Agreement?
The Escazú Agreement implements Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, adapting it to the regional circumstances of Latin America and the Caribbean. A new political declaration should similarly ensure that we adopt forward-looking, malleable principles that are adaptable to the regional context, inviting the plurality of legal concepts.
In 1992, virtually all the countries in the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro to adopt the Rio Declaration. The Rio Declaration represents a groundbreaking agreement on environmental principles that shaped international, regional, and national environmental law in the coming decades. We are now in a historic moment. In 2019, the UNGA called for a new political declaration to be adopted in 2022. Can we match the significance of the Rio Declaration and adopt a new agreement that reflects the current environmental crisis while preparing nations for future challenges? As governments negotiate a new agreement, it is essential to examine the lessons Rio has taught us and how the principles adopted grew into more substantive obligations as they matured.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration effectively established procedural environmental rights: access to information, public participation, and access to justice. Environmental decision-making faces a series of unique challenges due to the (i) volume and diversity of environmental interests, (ii) the plurality of environmental values involved, (iii) the uncertain nature of environmental knowledge, and (iv) the complex nature of environmental risk. Principle 10 brought awareness to these particular needs and provided broad mechanisms on how to address them. However, its language is significantly general, leaving the details to how these should be implemented to countries around the world. Thirty years later, we can say for certain that Principle 10 has affected environmental decision-making worldwide. We are facing a growing age of emancipatory environmental politics, and this historic moment comes with the recognition that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens. The negotiation of this new political declaration exemplifies the role of broad participation in different levels of environmental governance.
In 1998, Europe adopted the Aarhus Convention, which effectively implemented Principle 10 for that region. On 22 April 2021, the Escazú Agreement entered into force in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean results from six years of negotiations which followed the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Rio+20). At the forefront of environmental democracy, the Escazú Agreement joins the Aarhus Convention in implementing Principle 10. Yet, it provides a regional spin to it by recognizing the geographical underpinnings of the universal values it expands.
The Escazú Agreement holds that environmental decision-making is rarely straightforward. Essential in its implementation is recognizing how Principle 10 applies to the region’s social, cultural, economic, and environmental context. Escazú, therefore, expands on the three traditional pillars of access rights while also adapting them to the specific regional context it applies to. For example, Escazú places particular attention throughout the agreement to vulnerable peoples and groups that might require differentiated mechanisms for access to information, participation, and access to justice. It also embodies some international norms that apply to indigenous groups. Finally, given the deadly circumstances of environmental activism in Latin America and the Caribbean, Escazú is the first legal agreement in the world to stipulate procedural safeguards to protect activists who campaign for the preservation of natural resources.
Escazú is deeply committed to the pursuit of justice and provides a bright vision of environmental democracy as a tool to reclaim environmental protection. Its negotiating process already embodies the values it expands by inviting multiple viewpoints and respecting culturally and regionally sensitive expressions. This is even more essential as we navigate concepts that are deemed “universal.” How can the 2022 political declaration learn from this process?
As we look for legal answers to address the profound challenges of protecting our planet, we must gather a plurality of expressions. Achieving the best environmental outcome requires a path that is rarely straightforward. There is no silver bullet to protect the environment. Instead, a new legal answer requires moving away from a limited perspective from the Global North, inviting different worldviews, and, in particular, learning from traditional knowledge. A forward-looking new political declaration shall include malleable concepts that also pass the test of place and time. This is the lesson we need to learn from Principle 10 and its implementation through the Escazú Agreement.