Inter-American Court recognizes the right to a healthy environment of indigenous peoples in first contentious case
By Maria Antonia Tigre - For the first time in a contentious case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights holds a country accountable for failing to respect the right to a healthy environment of indigenous communities.
In the 2020 decision Indigenous Communities Members of the Lhaka Honhat Association vs. Argentina, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that Argentina violated an autonomous right to a healthy environment, to indigenous community property, cultural identity, food, and water. For the first time in a contentious case, the Court analyzed the rights autonomously based on Article 26 of the American Convention and ordered specific measures of reparation to their restitution, including actions for access to adequate food and water, for the recovery of forest resources and indigenous culture.
The ruling marks a significant milestone for the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights. For the first time, the Court set standards on the right to water, food, and a healthy environment. The Court interpreted human rights instruments as living instruments that follow the evolution of current times and living conditions. Based on this rationale, it updated the meaning of the rights derived from Art. 26 of the American Convention, which requires States to adopt measures to achieve the full realization of the rights set forth by the Convention. The Court relied heavily on its interpretation of the right to a healthy environment its Advisory Opinion 23/17 of 2018, in particular as it refers to the content and scope of the right to a healthy environment.
It thus incorporated the right to a healthy environment among the rights protected by Art. 26 of the American Convention given the obligation of States to achieve the integral development of its peoples arising from Arts. 30, 31, 33, and 34 of the Convention. As an autonomous right, it protects the components of the environment, such as forests, seas, rivers, and other natural features, as interests in themselves, even in the absence of certainty or evidence about the risk to individual people. It explicitly acknowledged the protection of nature because of its importance for other living organisms, rather than for its “usefulness” or “effects” to human beings. Notwithstanding, environmental damage can cause a violation of other additional human rights.
While considering the human rights that may be affected by environmental damage, the Court noted that these “can occur with greater intensity in certain groups in vulnerable situations,” among which indigenous peoples and “the communities that depend, economically or for their survival, fundamentally on environmental resources, [like] the forest areas or river domains.” Therefore, “based on the international regulations of human rights law, States are legally bound to address these vulnerabilities, in accordance with the principle of equality and not discrimination.”