San Andres island.

© 2015 Marcos Orellana

“A clean environment is a fundamental right for the existence of humanity,” proclaimed the Inter-American Court of Human Rights last week, the first time the court explicitly outlined some of the key components of the right to a healthy environment.

The court affirmed that the American Convention on Human Rights, a regional treaty obliging states parties to respect rights, protects the right to a healthy environment.

Colombia had requested this opinion from the court in 2016, expressing concerns about the threat posed by large-scale infrastructure projects in the Caribbean to the human rights of the islanders of the archipelago of San Andrés, located opposite Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea. In 2013, Nicaragua announced plans for a “grand canal” connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, though construction has not yet started. Serious questions have been raised about the potential environmental impact of the project.

Colombia and Nicaragua had sparred over dominion over the San Andrés archipelago. In 2012 the International Court of Justice settled their territorial and maritime dispute, granting Colombia title over the archipelago and leaving Nicaragua with a larger share of the continental shelf. That raised concerns in Colombia about the potential impact of oil and gas extraction by Nicaragua on the archipelago of San Andrés.

One key question the court grappled with was this: Since environmental harm often crosses state boundaries, does the American Convention protect persons affected by environmental harm coming from another country? The answer is yes: The court explicitly said that states’ obligations under the convention extend to harms caused to people outside of their borders.

This could be good news to Islanders of San Andrés, who now know that they could approach the court to hold Nicaragua accountable for any violation of their right to a healthy environment.  

The court’s ruling is a big step forward for the right to a healthy environment and will help empower people and communities to defend it.