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Q&A: The U.N.’s New Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Environment Previously Won a Landmark Case in Peru

Just weeks before Astrid Puentes Riaño took over as the United Nations’ top expert on human rights and the environment, she reached a different kind of professional apex. 

For over 20 years, Puentes Riaño, a Mexico-city based lawyer, had represented communities in La Oroya, Peru, a city known as one of the most polluted places on Earth.

La Oroya residents, with the help of Puentes Riaño and her colleagues at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), sued the Peruvian government for allowing a metallurgical complex to spew excessive amounts of toxic emissions into the air, water and soil for over a century.

It was a grueling David and Goliath legal battle that began in Peruvian courts before moving to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Years into the case, when Puentes Riaño asked the Inter-American Commission to issue an emergency order forcing Peru to control the complex’s emissions, she was questioned as to why, after so many decades of operations, it was suddenly so urgent that the plant shut down. 

Her response braided together scientific evidence and a moral imperative: As children grow, so too do their bones. For children living in a healthy environment and with ample dietary nutrients like calcium, their bones eventually transform into hardened skeletons. But, when children are exposed to lead, the heavy metal gets into their blood and bones, causing an irreversible harm that affects their physical and mental development, and in some cases can be deadly. 

Lead levels in the blood of La Oroya’s children grossly exceeded World Health Organization standards. When Puentes Riaño pushed for enforcement of those standards, she was told by some officials that Peru is a poor country and couldn’t afford to force companies to comply. 

“I won’t accept that,” she said during a recent interview where she reflected on the case. “Why are Peruvian kids worth less than kids in Geneva or other places where such outcomes wouldn’t be tolerated?”

In November 2023 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision in the La Oroya case, ruling that governments have a responsibility to prevent harm from private companies. The decision was the first to order the implementation of the human right to a healthy environment and required the Peruvian government to compensate the victims and hold those responsible for the harm accountable. 

In her new role as U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Puentes Riaño will work with communities around the world to ensure that governments are implementing the “human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” 

The position, created by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2012, was previously held by David Boyd and John Knox, whose work helped lay the foundation for the U.N. General Assembly’s unanimous recognition of the right in July 2022. 

It is now the job of Puentes Riaño to help governments understand what their obligations are to ensure that the right is respected by all citizens. She’ll do that by conducting in-country visits, issuing reports and engaging on the local level with communities and individuals living in some of the world’s most polluted regions or affected by environmental destruction. 

Puentes Riaño was born in Colombia. In addition to her work at AIDA, she has taught law at American University, Washington School of Law and consulted at the U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights on environmental issues in Mexico. Currently, she is a professor at the Berta Cáceres Environmental Justice Clinic at the Universidad Iberoamericana Law School in Mexico City. She is the first person from the Global South, and the first woman, to hold the Special Rapporteur mandate for Human Rights and the Environment. 

Puentes Riaño talked with Inside Climate News about her new role. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Astrid Puentes Riaño, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. Credit: Rames Photography
Astrid Puentes Riaño, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. Credit: Rames Photography

You’d been working at the intersection of human rights and the environment long before the legal community recognized the link between the two. Can you share a bit about your background? 

When I started working in this field 25 years ago, human rights and the environment were not as linked as we see today. Back then, environmental protection work was mostly conservation and the protection of biodiversity. The link with humans, and especially communities, wasn’t as strong. But I saw it early on in my work, being Colombian and living close to the Sierra mountains and Amazon rainforest. 

I also saw early on that Indigenous peoples and local communities, their lands and way of life were threatened by big infrastructure and extractive projects. The first situation I worked on was in the 1990s when the United States and Colombia were negotiating “Plan Colombia” and spraying coca and poppy plants throughout Colombia. It was a huge environmental problem and it was also impacting people because people were being sprayed. The human health impacts of that program weren’t being considered and that opened my eyes. I started working on cases like that and trying to find effective remedies using environmental law. But those legal tools weren’t strong enough. That’s why I landed on using human rights tools. 

You worked on the landmark La Oroya case. For you, what are some of the major takeaways from that litigation?

The smelter plant in La Oroya started a century ago. AIDA was not the first to know about it. The pollution was widely known for a long time. Che Guevara, in his motorcycle diaries, wrote about having an asthma attack in the town. The area is at a high elevation and combined with the pollution, it’s difficult to breathe there. It is a case where people thought it was lost before we began because the pollution had been going on for so long. 

We wanted to take on the case because we felt that we had to find a remedy for people and to hold companies and the government accountable. We also felt that the sacrifice of people for jobs and investments had to stop.

Our strategy was to pursue the case from a legal and scientific perspective. We relied on scientific studies showing the extent of contaminants on people’s health. It wasn’t a perfect case; it took 20 years to finally get the decision from the Inter-American Court. But it is the first case in the Inter-American system that talks about the environment being linked to the human rights of people living in an urban area. It’s also a case that talks about children and differentiated impacts on women. The case was led by women—both the lawyers and the moms in La Oroya defending the rights of their kids. The decision is very good but it should not have taken as long as it did.

Working on that case I saw firsthand the systemic injustices some communities face. When people in La Oroya went to the hospital to have medical exams, the doctors would never give them copies of their medical records. More than once, I went with the families and the hospital gave us the records because a lawyer was there. This happens everywhere, whether at the Belo Monte dam in Brazil or Indigenous communities in Mexico facing big projects. When they have lawyers behind them, governments and companies are more likely to listen and pay attention. This also reflects the systemic inequalities and existent discrimination that remains and needs to be changed. The role that I have as Special Rapporteur is to help institutions see that what communities have to say, and the knowledge they have, is important and valuable.  

In thinking about your mandate as Special Rapporteur, I couldn’t help but reflect on how human rights has evolved. I think most people mark 1948 as the beginning of the modern era, with the post-World War enactment of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It took 20 or so more years for the world to awaken to the problems of pollution and environmental destruction. It’s taken another 50 years for there to be broad consensus that nearly all human rights—the rights to life, health and family among them—are predicated on a clean and healthy environment. What is your thinking about this evolution?

I believe that recognition of the human right to a healthy environment is a completion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, back in 1948, the world was coming out of the horrors of World War II, and so the focus was on humanity preventing those atrocities from happening again. 

Today, I think that humanity is evolving and we’re confronting the separation [between humans and nature] that occurred during the industrial revolution. Law reflects culture, and for a long time the culture was about separation. Our laws institutionalized that way of thinking and disconnection is at the root of so many of our collective problems.

But now we’re seeing a flourishing in the knowledge of connection. Science proves that we are connected to, and part of, nature. Something that many Indigenous peoples have known for centuries. This idea of connection is also about joining different knowledge systems together. It is about collaboration, rather than competing. For example, if we’re doing urban planning, we cannot only think about the buildings and engineering. The design needs to account for the impact the city has on the entire surrounding area. 

Doing that type of work requires a lot of translating. We have to understand each other. Some people understand metrics, like how many gigatons of carbon are being emitted. Other people understand the human experience. I remember during the 2015 COP negotiations in Paris, everyone was talking about the 1.5-degree Celsius limit. It was very technical. Then, an Indigenous leader from the Pacific Islands stood up and said that if governments did not hold global temperature rise to that limit, her granddaughters wouldn’t be able to inherit their ancestral land because of sea level rise. We have to put a human face on climate and environmental policies. Human rights work does that. 

 What effect is that having on the way that major polluters think and operate? Is linking pollution and other environmental degradation to human impacts changing things at all?

For years there hasn’t been a comprehensive responsibility on the part of companies and states in this regard. Projects and activities are mostly still talked about in economic terms. Some companies still make calculations about whether it will be cheaper for them to contaminate and pay a fine, or not engage in the activity. This is challenging. 

Having healthy ecosystems and healthy air are not favors. They are rights and states and companies have obligations in that regard. We need states and businesses to assume their responsibilities—even if that might impact their economic interest because it is already impacting the human rights of all people. This is something I will be focused on as a special rapporteur. 

What are some other issues within your mandate that you’re closely watching or working on?

One is conservation. I remember learning about the removal of Native Americans from land that is now part of the U.S. national park system. This has happened everywhere in the world and is continuing to happen. Indigenous people, Afro descendant communities, peasant communities and others are being forced off of their territories to establish large conservation parks. Conservation and environmental protection can and should be done while respecting human rights and states and non-state actors need to abide by this. I will continue working on this with them. 

Another area is environmental defenders. We’re seeing worldwide that erosion of the rule of law and closing of civil spaces. Legislation is advancing that criminalizes people who protest or exercise their right to free speech. Every year dozens of environmental defenders are killed and harassed for protecting the environment. 

I’m also aware that there is a link between deforestation, illegal mining and illegal actors including narco traffickers. That’s something that not only impacts biodiversity and ecosystems but also people’s rights. Indigenous people and other land defenders have been killed or harassed fighting against this. There is a high risk for women and girls in these regions. I will work with other special rapporteurs on this to make sure that environmental defenders are protected. 

Even at international negotiations we’re seeing this issue. Scientists were harassed at recent plastic treaty negotiations. This can’t happen. We can disagree, but scientists, journalists and others cannot be put at risk because they’re doing their jobs. 

I’d also like to help clarify the obligations of states and nonstate actors. David [Boyd], my predecessor, wrote a report about the investor state dispute settlement system. His report opened the space for people in governments who weren’t aware of the risk the system poses. I’d like to continue that work and help states and businesses understand that we’re talking about the future—what is our legacy to future generations. If businesses continue using these very unbalanced and unjust schemes, they will be preventing states from complying with their human rights obligations. The damage from climate change and pollution is affecting businesses, it’s a risk for them too and a financial risk for everyone, in addition to the impact on the right to a healthy environment. 

But I want to be clear, I don’t think about these things as black and white, or win and lose. It isn’t a competition. If we think like that, we all lose. 

Is there anything else you want to add? 

There is a need for both equality and inclusion in this work and it’s not because we need to be politically correct. We are in the midst of a triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. What we’ve been doing isn’t working and we need different solutions. We need a diversity of voices to find those solutions. 

Today, we don’t really incorporate the traditional knowledge of local and Indigenous peoples into policies and laws. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has started talking about it, but in practice, especially in the Global South, it’s still very much extractive models. 

Unfortunately, mainstream solutions are very far from incorporating traditional knowledge—what communities have long known about the environment—into policy making. That is why, for me, linking human rights to these issues is a way of bringing those communities and knowledge systems into the fold. 

Source: Inside Climate News