Inter-American Court of Human Rights Rules Peru Violated Right to a Healthy Environment

On 22 March 2024, in a landmark judgement, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos) (IACHR) held Peru liable for more than one hundred years of industrial runoff from the La Oroya Metallurgical Complex, stating that the pollution violated the right to a healthy environment as found in Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador). The judgement marks the first time that the IACHR has held a State liable for a violation of the right to a healthy environment, as under the San Salvador Protocol only the right to education and trade unions were capable of giving rise to a petition of non-compliance.

The people of La Oroya brought the case in Peru almost two decades ago after suffering more than one hundred years of arsenic and lead poisoning as well as other toxic substances. Exposure to these pollutants resulted in a variety of mental and physical illnesses and in some circumstances, death. In fact, the contamination was so extreme that La Oroya has been recognised as a ‘sacrifice zone’, which is an area where extreme environmental contamination is caused by a reckless pursuit of profit so extreme that it amounts to a systematic violation of the human rights of the area’s residents. Despite the devastating effects of the runoff, at the time there was little hope of success as it was well established that corporations enjoyed an ever-present immunity. Thus, the people of La Oroya were unsuccessful within their own legal system, leaving them to seek justice via international means.

Almost twenty years later the IACHR’s historic ruling not only held that there had been a violation, but also that Peru was liable for the actions of a private company. This was due to the reason that the State was shown to have known for decades about the pollution and its effect on the residents’ health and also to have actively failed to implement adequate protections for both the environment and the residents’ rights. In the judgement, the court stated that when it comes to private or public businesses, violating human rights States have a positive obligation to, “prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuses through appropriate policies, regulatory activities and prosecution”.

The IACHR concluded that because of its failure to act Peru had violated the right to a healthy environment, the right to life, the right to health, the right to physical and mental integrity, the right to dignity, and the rights of the child. Also being violated was the right of access to information due to a failure to provide adequate information about the environmental contamination and associated health risks. They awarded damages between $30,000 and $65,000 USD to each of the identified victims, with those identified as being vulnerable (women, children and the elderly) receiving larger amounts. Peru was also ordered to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, monitor air, water and soil standards, strictly enforce environmental standards (includes ensuring polluters pay for the damage they cause), and prosecute the companies (or individuals) responsible for the environmental damage caused in La Oroya (this includes prosecuting anyone who made threats to human rights defenders).

This judgement was one of the first in the world to recognise that there is a substantive right to a healthy environment and may indicate a change in global inclination to recognise such a right. The Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment in an article about the case remarked, “Not only does it provide long overdue environmental justice for the people of La Oroya in Peru, it also establishes a vital precedent that will be used by concerned citizens, communities, courts, and environmental human rights defenders all over the world.”


Click here for the judgement in La Oroya v Peru



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