IACHR Admits Cases Involving Ancestral Land Rights and ‘Environmental Racism’
In its first five admissibility decisions of 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights admitted three petitions against Peru, one against Honduras, and one against the United States. The petition against Honduras concerns the rights of a Garifuna community, while the petition against the United States concerns the rights of a predominantly African American community in Mossville, Louisiana.
In the case of Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra and its Members, the petitioners – the non-governmental organization OFRANEH – alleged that members of the Garifuna community of Punta Piedra had been denied full exercise of their rights to ancestral lands due to a dispute with peasant farmers who settled on their land and the State’s failure to enforce an agreement between the parties. The petitioners alleged violations of Article 8 (fair trial), Article 21 (property), and Article 25 (judicial protection) of the American Convention, as well as violations of Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries of the International Labour Organization.
In admitting the petition against Honduras, the Commission determined that the petitioners had made out a colorable claim of a violations of Articles 21 and 25 of the American Convention and stated:
The Commission will consider in the merits stage whether there exists or not a violation of the rights enshrined in Articles 21 and 25 of the American Convention, in conjunction with Articles 1 and 2 of the same instrument, taking into consideration the special relation between the indigenous communities with their ancestral lands, recognized both by the IACHR and the Inter-American Court.
suffer or are put at risk of various health problems caused by toxic pollution released from fourteen chemical-producing industrial facilities that have been granted permits to operate in and around that city. The petitioners allege that scientific evidence from several sources, including governmental agencies, supports the serious and disproportionate levels of chemicals in the blood of Mossville residents, as well as high levels of respiratory and other illnesses connected with the released chemicals. Despite this evidence, there allegedly continues to be exposure to chemicals and no remedy has been provided for the public health crisis in Mossville. Based upon these circumstances, the petitioners further allege that the State environmental policies expose Mossville residents, the majority of which are African-Americans, to a disproportionate pollution burden, resulting in what they refer to as environmental racism, in breach of their right to equality before the law, guaranteed under Article II of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (the “American Declaration”). The petitioners’ first submissions also contain allegations of violations of the American Convention on Human Rights (the “American Convention”). Moreover, the petitioners argue that the State is responsible for the violations of Mossville residents’ rights to life, health and private life in relation to the inviolability of the home guaranteed, respectively, by Articles I, V, IX, XI, and XXIII of the American Declaration.
The Commission determined that the petitioners had not exhausted domestic remedies with regard to the alleged violations of their right to health and right to life and those claim were, therefore, inadmissible. However, it held that an exception to the exhaustion requirement applied to the alleged violations of the right to equality before the law, to privacy and to inviolability of the home because no remedy exists to successfully allege the specific violations at issue before U.S. courts. The Commission rejected the State’s argument that only intentional discrimination is prohibited by the American Declaration and ” recall[ed] that the right to equal protection under international human rights law has been interpreted as prohibiting not only intentional discrimination, but also any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which has a discriminatory effect”.
In light of the State’s objection that the petitioner’s claim relied on an “erroneously expansive” interpretation of its obligations, the IACHR also highlighted the need to interpret the Declaration “in the context of the international and inter-American human rights systems more broadly, in the light of developments in the field of international human rights law since the instrument was first adopted and with due regard to other relevant rules of international law applicable to member states”.
The cases against Peru are related to an enforced disappearance of an Army officer in 1984 (Rigoberto Tenorio Roca, et al.), the extrajudicial killing of journalists in 1984 (Jorge Sedano Falcón, et al), and torture and due process violations committed in the context of prosecutions under the former and current ‘antiterrorist’ legislation in Peru (Luis Enrique López Medrano, et al.).