Inter-American Court of Human Rights Solidifies the Right to a Healthy Environment

Decision Bolsters Access Rights, Extraterritorial Obligations, and the Precautionary Principle

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 9, 2018

Yesterday, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights released a precedent-setting opinion which recognizes the right to a healthy environment as fundamental to human existence and enumerates key duties of States in protecting that and other environment-related rights.

“This opinion extends and strengthens the growing body of law confirming States’ obligations to protect the right to a healthy environment,” says Carla García Zendejas. Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “This historic precedent will bolster communities seeking justice not only in Latin America but around the world, from communities affected by mining in Colombia to climate justice advocates in the Philippines and beyond.” The opinion is particularly significant because decisions from the IACHR have advanced jurisprudence at international courts worldwide for decades. CIEL provided input on the legal questions under consideration by the court through an amicus brief.

Importantly, the opinion recognizes that the right to a healthy environment is both an individual and collective right that protects both present and future generations. Critically, it recognizes that a country’s duty to protect these rights does not stop at its own borders. Governments have a duty under the Convention to protect human rights from environmental impacts and damages caused by activities under the jurisdiction or control of the State, even when the harms fall outside their territory.

“This opinion has ramifications far beyond the marine environments that prompted Colombia’s question,” adds CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “In recognizing that the right to a healthy environment transcends both borders and generations, the Opinion will make a vital contribution to accelerating efforts to protect the rights of present and future generations from transboundary harm, including the impacts of climate change.”

The decision also marks a vital step toward codifying access rights as enshrined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. The decision articulates, “States have the obligation to guarantee access to information with respect to activities that may affect the environment, the duty to guarantee the right to public participation in decisions and policies that may affect the environment, and access to justice with respect to State obligations for the protection of the environment.” At a time when the negotiation of a binding regional agreement on Principle 10 is reaching its final stages in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Court’s decision adds new energy and urgency to this effort.