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Chile’s ‘Clean Air’ Ruling Offers Hope on World Environment Day

Landmark Ruling Confirms Constitutional Right to a Healthy Environment

Students march to demand action on climate change, in Santiago, Chile, Friday, March 15, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Esteban Felix

Clean air is a core component of the right to a healthy environment. So says the UN expert on human rights and environment to mark the occasion of World Environment Day.

The residents of Chile’s coastal region of Quintero and Puchuncaví know first-hand how air pollution can impact their rights to health and a healthy environment. In August and September 2018, two toxic air pollution incidents in the region caused a public health crisis which caused more than 300 people to seek medical treatment for exposure to toxic substances.

When I interviewed leaders of grassroots organizations in Quintero this year, they alleged neglect from the government and spoke of their hope for environmental justice. The region has seen intensive industrial development over the last 50 years, and hosts refineries, power plants, and factories. Because of the extensive contamination from industrial activity in the area, it is commonly referred to as a “sacrifice zone.”

Last week, Chile’s Supreme Court answered their plea. The court found that the Chilean administration has neglected the health and wellbeing of the region’s residents for many years. And it ruled that major failures by governmental entities violated the constitutionally protected rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment.

Human Rights Watch had submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case, encouraging Chile’s Supreme Court to consider international law, human rights standards, and the environment as it considered whether the right to a pollution-free environment – guaranteed in Chile’s national constitution – had been violated.

In many ways, the situation in Quintero and Puchuncaví is symptomatic of many other areas around the world with extensive air pollution. The UN says that ambient and household air pollution contribute to 7 million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of approximately 600,000 children.

On this World Environment Day, the decision by Chile’s Supreme Court gives cause for hope that other courts around the world may find a basis in domestic law to uphold the right to a healthy environment.

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