Research Handbook on Human Rights and the Environment
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Research Handbook on Human Rights and the Environment

Edited by Anna Grear and Louis J. Kotzé

Bringing together leading international scholars in the field, this Research Handbook interrogates, from various angles and positions, the fractious relationship between human rights and the environment and between human rights and environmental law. The Handbook provides researchers and students with a fertile source of reflection and engagement with this most important of contemporary legal relationships. Law’s complex role in the mediation of the relationship between humanity and the living order is richly reflected in this timely and authoritative collection.
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Chapter 15: Environmental justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Sophie Thériault


This Chapter analyses, through the lens of environmental justice, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence interpreting and applying the American Convention on Human Rights and related instruments. Faced with the lack of efficient and accessible domestic legal remedies to protect themselves from the threats of environmental degradation, an increasing number of groups and individuals, in particular indigenous peoples, are turning to the Inter-American system as a potential vector of environmental rights and justice. This Chapter first analyses, in terms of environmental justice, the actual and potential strengths and shortcomings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence pertaining to the interpretation of the right to a healthy environment, the right to life and the right to freedom of thought and expression. It then analyses the multifaceted and potentially tense relationships between environmental justice and the right to property as this right has been interpreted by the Court in the context of litigation opposing indigenous peoples and States with regard to economic development projects on their traditional lands. The Chapter shows that the Inter-American Court’s progressive interpretation of human rights and freedoms provides interesting tools for promoting environmental justice. In particular, the right to life, interpreted by the Court through the notion of human dignity, could impose on States the positive duty to adopt concrete measures to secure the environmental conditions necessary for living a decent and healthy life. Moreover, the Court, relying on the principle of the equality of legal cultures, interpreted the traditionally individualistic right to property as encompassing indigenous peoples’ customary title and jurisdiction. However, considering the significant limitations imposed by the Court on those extensively-defined rights, the Chapter concludes that in order to promote environmental justice, human rights interpretation and adjudication would have to account more fully for the interconnectedness between human communities’ health and well-being and ecological integrity.

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