IACHR Files Case Before IA Court on Peru's Responsibility for the Effects of Contamination in La Oroya Community

October 14, 2021

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Washington, D.C. — On September 30, 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court) over the La Oroya Community case, concerning Peru. The case concerns the international responsibility of the State for the damages caused to a group of inhabitants of La Oroya Community, as a consequence of pollution caused by a metallurgical complex in the community.

La Oroya Metallurgical Complex began operations in the community in 1922. Its activities included the processing of polymetallic concentrates with high contents of lead, copper, zinc, silver, gold, and other substances. In 1974 the complex was nationalized and became the property of Empresa Minera del Centro del Peru, S.A., known as "CENTROMIN," which remained in operation until 1997.

There was no adequate legislation on environmental monitoring and the prevention of environmental contamination in Peru until 1993. That year, the Regulations for Environmental Protection in Mining and Metallurgical Activities was enacted, which determined that activities and operations in the sector required an Environmental Adjustment and Management Program (PAMA). In 1997, the Ministry of Energy and Mines approved the PAMA for the La Oroya Metallurgical Complex, establishing the public company CENTROMIN as the owner of this and setting a 10-year execution period. The company was privatized later that year. Between 1999 and 2002, at least four modifications were made to the original PAMA to postpone the implementation of the most important environmental protection projects it contained, such as the construction of a sulfuric acid plant. The State also issued three standards that granted extensions in favor of the foreign company that owned CENTROMIN.

In 2002, a group of residents of La Oroya filed an enforcement action against the Ministry of Health and the General Directorate of Environmental Health to protect their rights to health and a healthy environment in response to the construction of the sulfuric acid plant. They obtained a partially favorable ruling from the Constitutional Court in 2006, which ordered protective measures be put in place. However, despite more than 14 years having gone by since this ruling, no measures have been taken to implement the resolutions, nor were any actions taken by the court to enforce them.

In its merits report, the IACHR analyzed whether the damage and human rights violations suffered by the inhabitants of La Oroya could be attributed to the State. The IACHR found that the State did not comply with due diligence in its duties to regulate, supervise, and oversee the behavior of companies regarding the rights that they might jeopardize, nor with its duty to prevent violations of those rights. It further established that while CENTROMIN was operating as a state-owned company, there were no clear environmental responsibilities or obligations in place. Furthermore, following the privatization of the metallurgical complex, the State also failed to regulate activities in a way that safeguarded compliance with the PAMA, as demonstrated by the permissiveness that surrounded the modifications and extensions granted to the private company. It also deemed that the State's response compromised its obligation to guarantee human rights and created a situation that translated into acquiescence and tolerance, thus facilitating noncompliance with the PAMA. This was exacerbated by its knowledge of the environmental damage that was being caused.

With regard to the quality standards approved by the State, the IACHR established that there is a causal relationship between the State indicators that set permissible limits for certain chemicals that are the result of business activities and environmental pollution, and the levels that are acceptable for the environment and human health. It also found that the State did not justify its reasons for maintaining limits of 365 ug/m3 of sulfur dioxide until 2009, when the WHO had already set a limit of 20 ug/m3 as a guideline parameter in 2005. Consequently, the IACHR concluded that the Peruvian State failed to comply with its immediate obligations regarding the right to healthy environment and human health, as well as its obligation to progressively achieve the full realization of those rights.

Furthermore, the State failed to take adequate, specific, differentiated measures to address the dangers and risks that environmental pollution pose to children's health in the community. The State also failed to guarantee the victims' public participation in decisions that would affect them, such as through questioning, investigations, and opportunities to express their opinions. The IACHR also noted that the victims did not receive sufficient, timely information on measures that were adopted and that affected their rights. It further deemed that no serious, effective criminal or administrative investigations were carried out to guarantee access to justice for those victims who were subjected to threats, harassment, or reprisals by workers of the Doe Run Peru company as a result of the complaints made about the contamination.

Given this context, the IACHR concluded that the lack of adequate control systems through a clear regulatory framework, the lack of constant and effective supervision, the absence of sanctions or immediate actions to address situations of alarming environmental degradation conspired to allow the metallurgical complex to generate high levels of contamination that have seriously impacted victims' health.

Based on these findings, the IACHR concluded that the Peruvian State is internationally responsible for the violation of the rights to a life of dignity, personal integrity, a fair trial, access to information on environmental issues, the rights of the child, and the rights to public participation, judicial protection, and health and a healthy environment, as established in articles 4.1, 5.1, 8.1, 13.1, 19, 23.1.a, 25.1, 25.2 c., and 26 of the American Convention, in relation to the obligations set forth in articles 1.1 and 2.

Consequently, the IACHR asked the IA Court to establish the following measures of reparation:

  1. Provide comprehensive material and moral redress for the human rights violations set out in the report.
  2. Provide the comprehensive physical and mental healthcare measures needed to help the victims with the recovery process, should they so wish. Any such measures should be agreed upon with them and be accessible, targeted, and provided free of charge wherever the different victims are living. Likewise, given their status as victims of human rights violations, such care should be preferential and should guarantee the principle of the primacy of the best interests of the child.
  3. Conduct criminal or other types of investigations into the threats and harassment of the victims of these acts, in the terms stated in the report.
  4. Initiate or undertake administrative, civil, or criminal investigations, as appropriate, doing so in a diligent manner in order to ascertain which government officials or third parties are responsible for the environmental pollution in La Oroya that affected the right to health of the victims in this case. Likewise, make full use of all available mechanisms to deduce whether and how the respective company is responsible for environmental pollution.
  5. Take measures to avoid these events from being repeated.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 274/21

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