On 6 July the congressional commission dealing with foreign relations placed on the agenda for discussion an executive proposal to ratify the Escazú Agreement. The agreement aims to strengthen the defence of human and environmental rights. Immediately, a ‘fake news’ campaign was launched in the media and on social networks opposing the agreement, prompting a visceral debate on the matter.

Following the 2012 Río+20 international environmental meeting, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) promoted an internal agreement to strengthen the defence of human rights and the environment. Agreement was reached in March 2018 and the accord was signed that September by Peru’s then environment minister, Fabiola Muñoz. To date, 22 countries from the region have signed the agreement and nine have ratified it. However, for it to enter into force it must be ratified by eleven countries, and the time allowed for this expires in two months time.

The Escazú Agreement is the region’s first environmental treaty and seeks to guarantee three human rights: (i) timely and effective access to environmental information, (ii) public participation in decisions that affect the environment and (iii) access to justice to ensure compliance with environmental laws and rights or reparation for any damages.

According to Alicia Abanto of the Defensoría, the agreement “represents an opportunity for Peru to improve its culture of dialogue” and it “has the potential to help prevent social conflicts to the extent that, amongst its objectives, is that of improving and strengthening processes and mechanisms linked to citizen participation”.

Global Witness reports that, globally, more than three people are assassinated each week in conflicts over the defence of their territories and the environment. Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator reports that, since 2013, 18 human rights defenders (HDRs) in Peru have been assassinated.

The Escazú Agreement recognises for the first time in an international agreement the figure of an ‘environmental defender’. The former vice-minister for the environment, Mariano Castro, argues that “the state ought to exercise a special concern for this type of person, safeguarding their security, their integrity and their role as environmental defenders”.

Taking advantage of an ambiguous message sent on 15 June by the now former foreign minister, Gustavo Meza Cuadra, to the president of the congressional commission, spokespersons for FP and APRA, retired air force officers, well-known conservatives, the National Mining, Petroleum and Energy Association (SNMPE) and Confiep (the private sector confederation) have launched an aggressive fake news campaign in the media and social networks to discredit the agreement. Their claims and arguments have been fully answered and rejected by legal experts and former environmental vice ministers.

Opponents of Escazú claim that it will undermine national sovereignty, especially over the Amazon (not mentioned in the agreement), discourage private investment, and promote damaging conflicts fostered by radical environmentalists. In a public declaration, Confiep argues that the agreement could expose the country to “the internationalizing” of its internal conflicts and affect investment by generating legal instability. It concludes by stating that “we consider that, in order to protect our national sovereignty and provide legal security for the country’s economic activities, it would not be convenient to ratify the Escazú Agreement”.

Luz Salgado, former congresswoman from Fuerza Popular, has gone so far as to state that ratifying the agreement would mean “handing over the fatherland and giving immunity to all the foreign functionaries that enter the country”.

In a careful and detailed legal analysis, Alexander Antialón concludes: “Nowhere in the treaty have I found any indication that Peru’s national sovereignty would be endangered, much less that any territory would be handed over. This leads me to assume that such claims represent the ‘new normality’ of creole-style fake news. Neither is it the case that the Escazú Agreement would mean that internal disputes could be appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague”. In any case, he points out that, “supposing that Peru (or any other state) were to conclude that if the agreement, instead of generating progress, proves prejudicial, three years after it comes into force, it could withdraw from the treaty, effective one year later”.

For his part, Mariano Castro asserts that the criticisms of Escazú are “totally unfounded”. The text of the agreement “recognizes the principle of the permanent sovereignty of the state over its natural resources … Neither does it cede to international bodies the resolution of controversies and, of course, it does not imply at all the paralysis of the economy or that the state will be supplanted in decision making”.

Although the absurdity of many of the objections might make this seem a storm in a teacup, they reflect deep concerns within the private sector and more conservative elements of society about any possible ‘new normality’ in which established privileges appear threatened and where limits are placed on private industries’ access to the country’s natural resources.

We will have to wait and see whether the new cabinet, specifically the new ministers for foreign relations and the environment, take a firm public stand in defence of the agreement, seeing that it was signed by the environment minister with the full knowledge and support of the president and minister for foreign relations.