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Environmental Democracy: Where Open Government and the Escazu Agreement Meet

Democracia ambiental: un punto de encuentro entre gobierno abierto y el Acuerdo Escazú

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Andrea Sanhueza|

In 2018, 22 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean reached a historical milestone in environmental democracy by signing the Escazu Agreement. In 2020, 20 countries have ratified the treaty and one more ratification is missing to make this a reality. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is uniquely positioned to convene stakeholders and advance the principles of access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters, as the Escazu Agreement advocates for. Synergies between the two initiatives are the key to implement the Escazu Agreement for three main reasons:

1. Citizens are at the heart of democracy

Both OGP and the Escazu Agreement are based on the premise that the active participation of multiple stakeholders in decision-making processes is a cornerstone of strong democracies and of their ability to achieve governability and social peace. This is increasingly important in a context where these pillars are jeopardized by populism, social inequity and environmental degradation.

2. Multilateralism strengthens collaboration

Both initiatives (a global, voluntary initiative, and a regional, binding treaty) deeply believe in and practice multilateralism and understand that addressing the complex challenges that countries are facing collaboratively and collectively will bring about better results than by promoting solely national-level dialogue.

3. Focus on implementation

Both seek the effective implementation of transparency, access to information, public participation, and accountability, with the ultimate goal to ensure that people have the opportunity to exercise these rights.

These synergies represent a unique opportunity for countries in the region to leverage the OGP structure to identify context-specific challenges and therefore implement the Agreement.

Challenges

An ongoing research project conducted by The Access Initiative and the World Resources Institute highlights that citizens, especially the most vulnerable groups, face barriers to exercise their rights to information, participation and justice, including technical language, poverty, insufficient and inefficient participation mechanisms, difficulty accessing information, among others.

It also shows that there is no direct relation between legal frameworks and the effective implementation of these rights. Some norms establish sound standards, but fail to be implemented; some norms set low standards but can be easily ignored by future governments, as they are voluntary. Therefore, citizens cannot fully exercise these rights.

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Eleven ratifications are needed for the Agreement to enter into force, and OGP represents an opportunity to promote its ratification.

Opportunities

Today, the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have the opportunity of being a party to the Agreement. To date, 10 countries have ratified the agreement, including four OGP member countries. Eleven ratifications are needed for the Agreement to enter into force, and OGP represents an opportunity to promote its ratification.

The Escazu Agreement must be seen as a tool to address all environmental matters, from local recycling programs to participation in the drafting of Climate Change Acts. It can be used as a benchmark to strengthen the development and implementation of environmental democracy commitments of the OGP process. For instance, as part of its OGP action plan, Uruguay developed its National Water Plan through a transparent inter-governmental process, with meaningful participation from multiple groups. They also implemented a campaign to raise awareness and build capacities around the use and care for water. The IRM highlighted that the participatory nature of this plan was key to the potential impact in water management. However, it recommended broadening the scope of participation. Taking the Agreement as a benchmark, the commitment could have benefited from the inclusion of vulnerable groups and by incorporating a long-term vision and strategic engagement with key stakeholders.

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The Agreement can be used as a benchmark to strengthen the development and implementation of environmental democracy commitments of the OGP process.

Finally, OGP is a key platform to coordinate and foster the implementation of the Agreement, and broaden its reach. In its OGP action plan, Ecuador proposed a strategy to implement the Escazu Agreement, becoming one of the first to conduct a political, legal, and institutional analysis to define potential gaps in the Agreement, and later on proposed a governance model to define how the different stakeholders will work together to support its implementation. The IRM recommended clarifying the role of the observatory in terms of monitoring of information published under the Agreement and its ability to influence the implementation of the Agreement through early warning systems.

There are clear synergies between OGP and the Escazu Agreement, and the region is committed to advance sustainable development and environmental affairs (with over 20 commitments included in the two latest action plan cycles). With one more country to ratify the Agreement before being able to host the first Conference of the Parties, now is the time for the OGP community, governments and civil society to leverage the opportunity and face challenges related to access, participation and justice in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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