Escazú COP chief: ‘We have differences, but we agree on protecting the environment’

Marcelo Cousillas, chair of the first COP to the Escazú Agreement, reflects on the meeting and next steps for implementation of the landmark environmental treaty

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The first COP to the Escazú Agreement, the landmark regional environmental treaty, was held in Santiago, Chile on 20–22 April. One of the first decisions was the election of a COP president, with the position given to Marcelo Cousillas, director of the legal department of the Uruguayan Ministry of Environment. (Image: CEPAL)

The first Conference of the Parties (COP1) to the Escazú Agreement, the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean, was held in Santiago, Chile on 20–22 April, in a hybrid event. Representatives of governments and civil society took the first steps towards the implementation of the treaty, a year after it entered into force.

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Marcelo Cousillas, president of COP1 to the Escazú Agreement: ‘Countries in the region have time and again expressed the need to protect the environment’ (Image: Marcelo Cousillas)

The Escazú Agreement seeks to guarantee the “full and effective” implementation of the rights of access to environmental information and public participation in environmental decision-making, aiming to secure environmental justice and contribute to the protection of the right to live in a healthy environment.

Now ratified by 12 countries, the agreement is seen as a historic and vital instrument in a region where threats in these spheres are all too common: Latin America continues to be the region with the highest number of environmental defenders killed each year.

The recent three-day conference confirmed the participation of six representatives of the public in the work to steer the implementation of the agreement, and the creation of a compliance committee to hold states accountable. However, the road was not entirely smooth, with several tense moments in the course of the summit.

In breaking from what had been discussed by signatory states in the months leading up to the COP, representatives from Bolivia presented proposals to modify a paragraph of the treaty relating to public participation in the agreement’s directing committee – a debate swiftly resolved, as the proposal was unanimously rejected by the 700 plus delegates.

One of the first decisions agreed at the COP was the election of a president to oversee progress ahead of the next meeting, to be held in Argentina in 2023. The position was given to the director of the legal department of the Uruguayan Ministry of Environment, Marcelo Cousillas. In an interview with Diálogo Chino, he reflected on the outcomes of the COP1 meeting, and looked towards the next steps for the Escazú Agreement.

Diálogo Chino: The main objective of the COP was to approve the rules for the functioning of the agreement. How do you assess its development?
Marcelo Cousillas: On evaluation, totally successful. The objectives that were set for this first COP were met, the draft decisions that were foreseen could be adopted. What’s more, it was possible to add some further drafts and a political declaration, which were not foreseen in the agreement, but which the countries were proposing with some anticipation. Consequently, they were considered and approved by the states, in all cases by acclamation, by consensus and unanimously.

DC: What did you think of the debate generated by the Bolivian interventions on effective public participation?
MC: In the course of the negotiations, different positions were put forward – such as Bolivia’s – that generated debate, but I believe that we should not be afraid, we should not shy away from this type of situation, because this is the COP. It is the sphere in which all member states have equal voice and voting rights. That is what happened.

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For these meetings to be effective, they require a prior process of preparation, otherwise the time is never going to be sufficient. Sometimes what happens is that not all delegations can arrive with the same degree of preparation and then disharmony can occur. At some points, we saw these circumstances, which worried us, because it seemed to slow down our work. But unlike what has happened in other fora, and unlike what is sometimes said about our region, we were able to be quite punctual and finish on time.

After the debate generated by Bolivia’s position, what is going to happen concretely with public participation in the agreement?
Throughout the negotiation process of Escazú, when it was not yet an agreement, representatives of the public attended the negotiation meetings and other discussions. And according to the approved rules, elected representatives of the public have the right to participate in the COP, and have the right to participate with a voice at the board of directors. This is an innovation of the Escazú process, because it is the only international environmental agreement that has been negotiated with the effective and direct participation of elected representatives of the public.

How will the Escazú Agreement and its subsidiary bodies such as the Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance help environmental defenders?
What we have done at this conference is to approve the rules for the composition and functioning of the compliance committee, which will be composed of seven independent experts from the three branches of government, and will be elected by the COP.

Their function will be to collaborate with the states for the better application of the agreement, which has an effect on the protection of human rights defenders in environmental matters. These seven experts will be elected at the next COP, to be held next year in Argentina.

When would this committee start functioning and how is it planned to operate?
In order for this committee to start functioning, the rules that we have just adopted at this conference are needed, and it will need to be integrated. This will happen at the COP in Argentina, in April 2023.

The environment is not only defended in one territory, it is defended in the whole region, it is defended globally

That is to say, from now on, a process of public call, identification, survey and evaluation of the potential candidates that could be proposed will begin, so that the COP can make an informed decision on them. So it is safe to estimate that in the first half of the year 2023 the committee will be integrated, and consequently it will be able to start its activities.

How do you translate the standards promoted by the Escazú Agreement into the reality of the people?
Any state party has to ensure that its national legislation and practices comply with the provisions of the agreement, in terms of access to information – information that must be actively provided to citizens – participation in environmental decision-making, access to justice and the protection of defenders. In other words, the different articles of the agreement. This is basically the task for the countries.

Finally, why is it important that other countries in the region that have not signed or ratified the Escazú Agreement do so?
The Escazú Agreement is a regional agreement for Latin America and the Caribbean, and in its annex it identifies the 33 states that have the capacity to become part of it. Twelve states have already done so [by ratifying the agreement] and another twelve have signed it. Countries in the region have time and again expressed the need to protect the environment. There are issues on which we may have differences, but I would say that it is one issue that unites us.

The environment is not only defended in one territory, it is defended in the whole region, it is defended globally. As a result, it is very convenient for a country that the region is united in the defence of the environment. As a country, it will be in my interest that in the same way that I provide security for my citizens, so will the other countries. In this way, everyone will have the same rights and the same obligations.

That does not mean that we will apply these rights under the same rules. Environmental rules do not apply the same in the Amazon wetlands as they do in the Chilean dry zone, nor do they apply the same in the Uruguayan plains as they do in the Andean zone. Therefore, different solutions must be sought to guarantee the same rights in all regions. That is what Escazú is looking for.