Tunisia Recognizes Climate Change In Its Constitution

Tunisia becomes the third country in the world to do so, but is it as progressive a step as environmentalists would hope?

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REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Members of Tunisia's parliament celebrate their new constitution

Last month Tunisia’s parliament celebrated the signing into law of its new constitution, which took more than two years to draft. The constitution has been labeled one of the most progressive in the region, especially for its provisions on health care, women’s rights and notably, climate change. In fact, by embedding climate protection in its text, Tunisia has joined a very exclusive group of countries to do so—only Ecuador and the Dominican Republic have similar provisions.

The new climate clause under Article 45 obliges the state to guarantee “a sound climate and the right to a sound and balanced environment,” and to “provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution.” The opening preamble also notes “the necessity of contributing to a secure climate and the protection of the environment.” Dhamir Mannai, a Tunisian MP who helped draft the clause together with the support of the NGO Climate Parliament and the United Nations Development Program, said “Having successfully challenged an autocratic regime, Tunisia is now ready to face up to a different kind of challenge: that of climate change.”

It may seem unusual for Tunisia—the country that sparked the Arab Spring protests more than three years ago and which still faces huge social and economic challenges—to include tackling climate change on its list of commitments. But numerous reports, including from the Center for American Progress, suggest that climate change could have played a role in exacerbating the underlying factors that sparked all-out revolution. And because of the location of this tiny North African nation, it faces environmental stresses such as water shortages, rising temperatures, drought and the expansion of the Sahara desert, something that “could pose an existential threat to the Tunisian people,” said Tunisian MP Hasna Marsit.

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But the question remains whether constitutionally recognizing the threat of climate change is enough of a step to help tackle it. “The constitution is the highest legal document in the land, and by picking climate change out of a larger bowl on environmental issues, Tunisia is recognizing it at the highest possible level,” says Linda Siegele, an environmental lawyer part of the advocacy group Wild Law U.K., which aims to ground the rights of nature in law. She notes that securing these provisions in its constitution also makes it much harder for future governments to change. Though that protection isn’t necessarily enough. “The devil is in the implementation and interpretation.”

This issue of applying constitutional law has been a thorny one for Ecuador. It introduced in its 2008 constitution entire chapters, not just articles, on both the rights of nature and the responsibility to protect the biosphere, urban ecology and support alternative sources of energy. One passage states that nature, or Pachamama (the term for Mother Earth), “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of is life cycles, structures, functions and evolutionary processes.” Siegele describes this as “truly progressive, because it takes the notion of law and who has rights to a completely different level.”

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But six years on, environmental activists and indigenous groups are at loggerheads with President Rafael Correa’s government over plans to drill an oil block in the Yasuni National Park, the country’s largest nature reserve and one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.  Indigenous groups have accused Correa’s government of appropriating their spiritual values in the constitution to use as symbolic statements. “It doesn’t know what Pachamama is. It doesn’t understand the rights of nature,” said Carlos Perez, President of the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador.

Though comparing Ecuador with Tunisia is a little like comparing apples and oranges, warns Siegele, the Latin American nation still offers lessons on how the implementation of seemingly progressive environmental provisions are open to interpretation. Climate change will also be low down the list of immediate priorities for the Tunisian government, with unsolved issues such as unemployment, rising prices and the need to reassure foreign investors and allies competing for their attention. How its commitment to climate protection plays out will not likely be seen in the short-term, but the fact that the government chose to enshrine environmental protection in the constitution at all can only be in principle a really good thing.

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