Vance Center Supports Crucial Submission in Landmark Inter-American Court Decision on Environmental Rights

March 2024

The Vance Center advised UN Special Rapporteur David Boyd in his amicus submission to the Court in this long-awaited decision.

Photo credit: Shutterstock 

On March 22, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision finding that the state of Peru violated multiple human rights of the residents of the town of La Oroya, including their right to a healthy environment. Together with the law firm Arias, the Vance Center advised David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, in his 2022 submission to the Court in this case. 

This month’s decision by the Inter-American Court marks a major development in a long and arduous process for the victims seeking justice. For decades the residents of La Oroya, a town in central Peru, have been exposed to lead, copper and sulfur dioxide pollution from a metal smelter. The industrial pollution has had a catastrophic impact on residents’ health: 99% of children in the town have lead levels in their blood which exceed safe limits, and the town has been assessed as one of the most polluted places in the world.

The residents won a case at the Peruvian Constitutional Court in 2006, but the Peruvian government never implemented the decision. Many of the victims have endured harassment and threats, and the Court found that Peru’s failure to investigate and prosecute such harassment amounted to further rights violations. 

In its decision, the Court affirmed that the right to a healthy environment forms part of Inter-American human rights law and is enforceable in contentious disputes. This means, for example, that people “enjoy the right to breathe air whose levels of contamination do not constitute a significant risk to their enjoyment of their human rights, and to water free of levels of contamination that constitute significant risks,” according to the ruling. States have a duty to prevent such violations, including by regulating private companies.

In addition to environmental rights violations, the Court found that Peru violated the community’s rights to health, life, personal integrity, the rights of children, public participation, judicial protection, and access to justice.  

As support for its conclusion that the pollution specifically violated the rights of children, the Court also referred to the recent General Comment 26 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Vance Center and partner firm Clifford Chance provided crucial advice and legal support in the development of this General Comment, published in August 2023. 

The Court issued a range of remedies, including compensation of US$30,000-65,000 to each victim. It also ordered Peru to strengthen its environmental regulations and monitoring systems, and to clean up the ecosystems damaged by the smelter’s operations.

UNSR Boyd’s brief presented in this case is one of many collaborations between the Vance Center’s Environment Program and the office of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. It also marks one of the Vance Center’s final collaborations with Dr. Boyd, whose mandate will soon expire. Cases such as La Oroya reflect the enormous contribution that he and his predecessor, Prof. John Knox, have made in recognizing and enforcing the right to a healthy environment, including for those most vulnerable to the devastating effects of pollution.