Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Canada, US and Mexico interfering with NAFTA watchdog

An international coalition of academics, environmental, and conservation groups today called on the governments of the U.S.A., Mexico, and Canada to stop interfering with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an  environmental watchdog agency created under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The coalition alleges that the conduct of the environment ministers of each country is interfering with the CEC, and particularly its core citizen complaint procedure.

“We are deeply concerned by increasingly blatant government interference in the operations of this important environmental watchdog,” said Albert Koehl, lawyer with Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law organization.

The CEC was established in 1994 to quell fears that NAFTA would lead to business leaving the U.S. because of lax environmental enforcement elsewhere.  A side agreement to NAFTA was negotiated which included the establishment of the CEC along with a novel and promising provision that allowed citizens to request investigations into a country’s failure to enforce its own environmental laws.

The groups, however, allege that the governments are undermining the CEC by obstructing its investigations and severely limiting their scope. In one recent case involving an alleged failure by the US EPA to enforce its Clean Water Act against US coal-fired power plants, the governments have obstructed the process for almost two and a half years.

“The CEC’s watchdog role is a small price to pay by our governments for a measure of credibility to their assertions that NAFTA respects the environment and other social values,” said Gustavo Alanis of the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental in Mexico City.  “It’s too bad our governments are so short sighted that they can’t bear even this small amount of scrutiny.”

Although the CEC was originally created to quiet anxiety over potentially weak Mexican environmental enforcement, Canada and the U.S. have also been the targets of citizen complaints. In fact, two recent investigations by the CEC found that Canada was failing to enforce wildlife protection laws against logging companies engaged in clearcutting and pollution laws against pulp and paper companies.

“When the CEC was established, we saw it as a novel and promising model for other trade agreements,” said U.S. Professor John H. Knox of Wake Forest University School of Law. “It’s sad that this promise is being squandered by our leaders to avoid the small fallout of scrutiny that comes from citizen complaints.”

The coalition’s call to the NAFTA parties this week coincides with a CEC meeting in Phoenix, Arizona as well as the North American leaders summit in New Orleans, which includes discussions on the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The SPP — including its environmental initiatives — has faced criticism for its lack of transparency and public participation, precisely the types of safeguards central to the CEC.

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