The La Oroya Case: the Relationship Between Environmental Degradation and Human Rights Violations, by Professor Paula Spieler, published in Volume 18 Issue 1 of the Human Rights Brief, raises one of the most important challenges that faces human rights agencies today. Even in the 21st century, our global society has not yet eradicated poverty. It is clearly not possible to speak of human rights realization when the majority of the inhabitants of our planet still lack many basic necessities. The state of the environment is intimately related with development and combating poverty. It is not a coincidence that maps of contamination largely coincide with maps of poverty.

Professor Spieler’s article not only describes the problems faced by the community of La Oroya, but more importantly, it identifies concrete and attainable steps that the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS) has to take to effectively protect human rights, which, in the end, is its primary objective.

Latin America is above all, an environmental power. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights exercises its jurisdiction in the world’s richest region in terms of environmental resource biodiversity. But it is also the region where we find the largest levels of social and economic inequality, including inequities relative to accessing natural resources. Environmental discrimination is at its most profound in Latin America, where the most vulnerable suffer the largest portion of the environmental burdens that our societies generate.

Our ancestral past is marked by the foreign appropriation of natural resources, accompanied by widespread genocide. Our future will be marked by the public policies that States put forward (or fail to put forward) relative to environmental resources. The IAHRS cannot ignore this problem, particularly if its human rights agencies expect to defend the human rights enshrined in the American Convention.

The case of La Oroya reflected in Professor Spieler’s article offers an extremely important opportunity to advance the protection of human rights in Latin America, particularly relative to the objective of attaining a fairer distribution of resources and the promotion of more equitable development. We hope that the IAHRS will step up to the challenge it now faces in cases like La Oroya.

As Professor Spieler points out, the formal obstacles can be overcome with the tools the IAHRS has now. It is time that the IAHRS address the environmental issues that affect millions in Latin America. We’ve worked tirelessly over the last decade to generate awareness and move the human rights community and political actors to recognize environmental degradation as a human rights violation. Our work has included fostering awareness, discussing theory, communicating, establishing doctrine and jurisprudence, and pushing for collective political decision-making in this direction. We have achieved so much, and now it is time for a bold move in the area of law enforcement and in ensuring equitable development, reparations, and fairer resource distribution. In sum, it is time to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable.

*Romina Picolotti, winner of the 2006 Sophie Prize for her work to promote human rights and environmental linkages, is Founder and President of the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA). She served as Environment Secretary of Argentina from 2006-2008.