The FiTI Standard: an effective tool to support the implementation of the Escazú Agreement

The FiTI Standard: an effective tool to support the implementation of the Escazú Agreement

World Fisheries Day is celebrated every year on November 21 throughout the world, reminding us about the importance of maintaining the world’s fisheries for generations to come. And while there are many aspects to achieve sustainable fisheries, the public availability of credible information is critical. To mark the 2021 World Fisheries Day, the FiTI’s Chair of the International Board, Valeria Merino, reflects on the importance of transparency and access to information about fisheries in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

By Valeria Merino, Chair of the FiTI International Board

Fisheries sustainability cannot be accomplished in the dark. Governments not only need to have all the necessary information to make the right decisions to ensure sustainable management of marine fisheries, but must make that information available to the public. Today, on World Fisheries Day, at FiTI, we bring your attention to transparency and access to information about fisheries and highlight a great milestone and opportunity to advance these issues in the Latin American and Caribbean Region.

The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), better known as the Escazú Agreement, entered into force on the 22nd of April of this year. This unprecedented treaty requires its member states to provide access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making, and measures to protect environmental activists.

The Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), which I chair, welcomes this regional milestone wholeheartedly. The FiTI Standard, created by our organization, is a valuable resource for countries that want to implement their obligations under the agreement concerning the fisheries sector.

Having the first Latin America and the Caribbean environmental treaty on Access to Information entering in effect has a special significance to me. As a constitutional and environmental lawyer and the co-author of Ecuador’s Access to Information Law, I am acutely aware of the importance of achieving transparency in managing natural resources. This is especially important if we ever want to achieve sustainability and prevent the permanent depletion of our marine fisheries.

The Escazú Agreement represents a breakthrough in international law in the LAC region by clearly emphasizing the importance of active participation, access to information and justice for addressing environmental issues, and achieving sustainability. As stated in the agreement, it can become a powerful instrument to deepen accountability, transparency, and good governance. And, by linking global frameworks, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, with national frameworks, the agreement sets regional standards, nurtures capacity building, lays the foundations of a supporting institutional architecture, and offers improved policy and decision-making tools. In fact, the agreement seeks “to ensure the right of all persons to have access to information in a timely and appropriate manner, participate significantly in making the decisions that affect their lives and their environment, and access justice when those rights have been infringed.”

The FiTI is aligned with many of the principles espoused by the Escazú Agreement. The agreement defines environmental information as “any information that is written, visual, audio, and electronic, or recorded in any other format, regarding the environment and its elements, and natural resources.” Therefore, the agreement includes access to information about marine fisheries, which is the core focus of the FiTI.

Also, the agreement embraces the principle of maximum disclosure, which qualifies the concept of access to information. The principle of maximum disclosure “establishes a presumption that all information held by public bodies should be subject to disclosure and that this presumption may be overcome only in very limited circumstances. In other words, the public authority must show that the information which it wishes to withhold comes within the scope of the limited regime of exceptions.”[1] Under this principle, “the exercise of this right should not require individuals to demonstrate a specific interest in the information or to explain why they wish to obtain it. Where a public authority seeks to deny access to information, it should bear the onus of justifying the refusal at each stage of the proceedings.”[2]

The premise of FiTI’s work is that countries that are serious about pursuing the sustainability of marine fisheries will want to join the FiTI and apply the FiTI Standard. This standard determines all the information that governments should make public to ensure transparency in the fisheries sector. In turn, access to public information would allow all interested parties to be adequately informed and to participate effectively in managing such critical resources. The agreement and the FiTI Standard are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

The Escazú Agreement was challenging to negotiate, as countries that sign and ratify the document acquire important obligations. Its implementation will be successful only if the countries that have ratified it take positive steps to implement its provisions at the national level. Such steps often entail that the Executive of a country and the Legislature work together to build a legal framework compliant with the concepts and obligations stated in the agreement, issue new policies, administrative provisions or embrace new standards. The FiTI Standard provides this blueprint for countries that want to implement their obligations under the agreement concerning the fisheries sector.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), about the rights framed in the Escazú Agreement, 23 countries in LAC have adopted access to information laws. Nevertheless, for the most part, those laws do not contain detailed provisions concerning public information about the management of natural resources. Therefore, embracing the FiTI Standard, a document that took two years to develop and had the input of experts from all over the world and all sectors of society, would help countries implement transparency in marine fisheries swiftly.

We invite those countries that signed and ratified or are about to ratify the Escazú Agreement to join the FiTI. We are ready to work with those who recognize that marine fisheries are under threat because of overexploitation and illegal or non-sustainable practices and realize that transparency can make a difference in protecting this vital resource.

[1] The Public’s Right to Know: Principles on Right to Information Legislation, Article 19.

[4] The Public’s Right to Know: Principles on Right to Information Legislation, Article 19.