UN Human Rights Committee Recognizes Environmental Harm as Rights Violation
In a landmark decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has found Paraguay responsible for failing to protect individuals from severe environmental contamination by large-scale farms’ use of illegal chemicals, in violation of the State’s international obligations to protect the rights to life and respect for private and family life and the home. [OHCHR Press Release: Paraguay] While regional human rights bodies have recognized the link between pollution and enjoyment of human rights, this decision marks a first for the Human Right Committee, which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which 173 States are party. [OHCHR Press Release: Paraguay] Other relevant developments include a new partnership between the UN Environmental Programme and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights seeking to strengthen global environmental protection efforts and increase protections for environmental activists. [NYTimes; OHCHR Press Release: UNEP]
On August 9, 2019, the Committee published its decision in a complaint submitted by a family of rural workers against Paraguay, in connection with toxic pollution caused by the agriculture industry. See Human Rights Committee, Portillo Cáceres v. Paraguay, Communication No. 2751/2016, Views of 9 August 2019, UN Doc. CCPR/C/126/D/2751/2016, para. 2.1 (Spanish only). The complainants alleged that the State failed to exercise adequate control over the large agribusinesses in the area, resulting in the widespread use of illegal chemicals that left one community member, Rubén Portillo Cáceres, dead; caused a variety of serious health problems for victims, including “nausea, dizziness, headaches, fever, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and skin lesions;” and killed fruit trees, crops, and farm animals. See id. at paras. 2.3, 2.5-2.8.
Prior to considering the merits of the case, the Human Rights Committee dismissed Paraguay’s arguments regarding the admissibility of the complaint. See id. at paras. 6.1-6.6. Specifically, the State argued that the Human Rights Committee did not have ratione materiae jurisdiction (subject matter jurisdiction) because the ICCPR does not recognize the right to a healthy environment. See id. at para. 6.3. However, the Human Rights Committee noted that the complainants were not alleging a violation of the right to a healthy environment, but rather violations of the rights to life, private and family life and home, and the right to an effective remedy, which are specifically protected under the ICCPR. See id.
Additionally, the Human Rights Committee dismissed the State’s argument that the complainants had not exhausted domestic remedies, finding that the domestic remedies had been unduly prolonged given that the investigations at the domestic level had not made substantive progress eight years after the alleged facts occurred. See id. at paras. 6.4-6.5. Despite a domestic court order finding that Paraguay failed to protect people from the type of pollution agribusiness caused in the victim’s home region, the State did not implement any environmental protection measures, and the fumigations continue to release large quantities of toxic chemicals into the environment near the victims’ homes. See id. at paras. 6.5, 7.5. Thus, the Committee found the complaint admissible. See id. at para. 6.6.
After reviewing the parties’ submissions, the Human Rights Committee analyzed whether the facts alleged constituted violations of the right to life (Article 6), the right to private and family life and home (Article 17), and the right to an effective remedy (Article 2(3)). See id. at paras. 7.2, 7.7, 7.9. While the complainants also alleged a violation of Article 7 (torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) of the ICCPR, having found a violation of Article 6, the Committee decided that it was not necessary to examine the same facts under this provision. See id. at para. 7.6.
With respect to Article 6, the Committee clarified that States have a positive obligation to guarantee the right to life, which also includes the right to enjoy a life with dignity. See id. at para. 7.3. Citing decisions from the European, African, and Inter-American human rights systems, the Committee observed that severe environmental harms can have a direct impact on individuals’ right to life. See id. at para. 7.4. In this case, the Committee found that the “illegal polluting activities” of businesses in the agriculture sector created reasonably foreseeable threats to the victims’ right to life given the damage that these activities had already caused to crops, farm animals, and fruit trees. See id. at para. 7.5. The Committee found that Paraguay’s failure to act following community members’ reports of physical symptoms associated with the chemicals and the death of Portillo Cáceres constituted a violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR. See id.
The Human Rights Committee also found a violation of Article 17 of the ICCPR, noting that the State’s failure to protect the fruit trees, farm animals, crops, and water resources that the victims rely on for their livelihood constituted a violation of their right to private and family life and home. See id. at para. 7.7. The Committee specifically stated that when the consequences of environmental pollution reach a certain level of severity, depending on their duration an intensity, the environmental degradation can result in a violation of the right to private and family life and home. See id.
Finally, the Committee found a violation of the right to an effective remedy in relation to articles 6 and 17 of the ICCPR, noting that Paraguay failed to conduct an effective and diligent investigation into the environmental pollution that was implicated in the poisoning and subsequent death of Portillo Cáceres. See id. para. 7.9. The Human Rights Committee concluded that Paraguay must conduct an effective investigation into the effects of the chemicals, punish all those responsible, provide reparations for victims, and adopt preventative measures. See id.
Regional Human Rights & Environmental Protections
While this is the first time that the Human Rights Committee has held that environmental harms may undermine rights protected by the ICCPR, other regional bodies have previously recognized the links between a healthy environment and various human rights. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has developed caselaw on State responsibility for environmental protection with respect to rights listed in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), even though the right to a healthy environment is not explicitly recognized in the ECHR. See ECtHR, Factsheet on the Environment and the ECHR. Dating back to the early 1990s, the ECtHR has considered cases related to industrial waste products, industrial and noise pollution, water contamination, among other environmental harms, and linked them to rights under the ECHR, including the right to life (Article 2), the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3), the right to a fair trial (Article 6), the right to respect for private and family life and home (Article 8), the right to freedom of expression (Article 10), the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11), the right to an effective remedy (Article 13), and the protection of property (Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention). See id.
Most recently, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) issued an advisory decision at the request of Colombia regarding questions of environmental protection and the rights to life (Article 4) and personal integrity (Article 5) guaranteed in the American Convention on Human Rights. See IACtHR, Official Summary Issued by the Inter-American Court. The IACtHR found there to be an “irrefutable relationship” between the environment and the ability to effectively enjoy all other recognized human rights. See id. 2. However, the IACtHR also recognized the “autonomous” right to a healthy environment under the Article 26 of the American Convention (progressive development), noting that it should not be considered a mere conduit for the protection of other substantive human rights. See id. Additionally, the Court addressed the extraterritorial scope of State responsibility for environmental harms, finding that a State is responsible for human rights violations with respect to environmental damage suffered outside of its territory if there is a “causal connection” between the State’s activities and the impact outside of its borders. See id. 4. Therefore, the Court stated, States must “regulate, supervise and monitor the activities under their jurisdiction that could cause significant damage to the environment.” See id. 3-4.
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