From the state’s perspective, not signing the Escazú Agreement represents an achievement. Critics should have focused on what that means for society, rather than focusing on the governments justifications. Viewing the refusal through a narrow theoretical lens has deprived analysts from understanding, and explaining, what just happened.
Most Latin American countries, including the major economies, have signed the Escazú Agreement, although only nine – none of the major economies – have ratified it. Chile won’t even sign it, although President Sebastián Piñera favored its creation during his first term.
Undoubtedly, the agreement is excellent. It could succeed in increasing general wellbeing and democracy. Enormous progress is that under the agreement environmental rights equal human rights. It also creates a right to live in a healthy environment. Signatories commit to provide data and improve citizen participation in projects that affect their immediate environment. Developing states would be privileged in issues around access to water and indigenous populations in issues around land.
Chile’s president, however, has ordered his ministers to minimize these achievements, which is also humiliating for the diplomats that worked on the agreement. The government claims the document creates uncertainty because it would contradict local law, and just raise the bureaucratic burden. Of course, this government also had to play the nationalist card. Officials claim the agreement privileges Bolivia’s position regarding the Silala River and could even rekindle the row over access to the Pacific.
These arguments can easily be refuted and shouldn’t be dwelled on. It’s more important to expose why La Moneda’s is making weak arguments.
Read this article from last year:
Power is Key
When Piñera greenlighted Chile’s participation in the Escazú talks, the world was different. Internationally, multilateralism was the name of the game and domestically Piñera was still eager to present himself as a ‘good’ conservative.
But things have changed. Strongmen have reemerged and the looming climate catastrophe has been politicized, because economic power will change with the emergence of environmental rights. Neoliberals generally deride rising economic democracy as populism. Albeit late, La Moneda has realized these consequences and that Chile’s reputation among the investment community would suffer.
This would erode the state’s foundations which are based on oligarchic economic power, investor certainty, labor uncertainty, and economic orthodoxy.
More concretely, claiming a right to live in a healthy environment would threaten Chile’s ‘sacrifice zones.’ Just one of these is Quintero – “one of the world’s most polluted cities.” In 2018, methyl chloroform, nitrobenzene and other demonic substances leaked from the chemical plant and poisoned the local population more than usual.
Afterward, a state-supported cover-up ensued. Nobody has been held accountable for the suffering inflicted on citizens. Under the Escazú Agreement, this would have been a crime and the state would have had to prosecute executives and politicians. Citizens would even gain means to drag the government to the International Court of Justice.
Likewise, the Mapuche issue. Mapuche see body and environment as one entity, so environmental destruction equals physical harm. With the rights and privileges they would have gained under the Escazú Agreement, they could have killed the sprawling logging business in La Araucanía region. The business is dominated by the Matte family, one of Chile’s most influential and reactionary dynasties. The state has militarized the area and repressed any opposition to the degree that the conflict is turning into guerrilla warfare.
Peace would become possible under the Escazú Agreement, but it would also mean a defeat of the Mattes and an initial collapse in investment and export revenue. The state could not be suppressive, but would have to pursue indigenous justice. This would also go against its racist roots.
The Wrong Approach of Escazú
Unfortunately, many critics of the government’s refusal play a silly blame game when hardball is needed. They believe Chile will lose its fine reputation as a reliable partner and multilateralist.
These criticisms are based on false assumptions, though. It’s not certain that more laws and treaties create a better world or society. Second, the government claims it’s pursuing the national interest, which is impossible to disprove, since it is always interpreted by the powers that be. Hence, the government’s argument that cooperation must stop when it threatens the state makes sense.
Critics’ hope that the ‘international community’ could shame Chile into signing is naive. The international community doesn’t exist. An answer to the question of who would determine that Chile should be shamed and how already destroys the very concept of international community.
But even accepting the premise for the sake of argument, the government could rightly say that Chile cannot be member of a community that is opposed to the interests of the nation. Besides, major powers like the US and China won’t start a diplomatic spat over a signature that doesn’t concern them. Both the White House and China’s Communist Party certainly commend La Moneda on this decision.
The Domestic Angle
Entrenched economic interests were relieved too, while the government’s claim about uncertainty also holds true. This state has always functioned under a capitalist framework, striving to create investors’ certainty even at the expense of workers. Under capitalism, this counts as good economic management. And a good reputation in this area counts more than one in environmental matters.
The president and much of the business community do not think citizens have a right to live in a healthy environment. They should not be informed about the toxins they are breathing in and digesting, nor should they have a say in projects that fundamentally impact how they live.
By narrowly focusing on abstract and legalistic politics, ignoring domestic power and realist analyses of international relations, academic experts have failed to build a forceful argument. They should question assumptions about cooperation as a virtue and analyze how capital makes the world go round.
And for the government, refusing a signature makes sense – even under ridiculous pretensions. Society at large will be worse off for it, though.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).