Report on the situation in La Oroya : When investor protection threatens human rights

FIDH released a report on the situation in La Oroya, a city in the central Andean region of Peru that is at the center of a controversial case of industrial pollution caused by a poly-metallic smelter in operation since 1922.

For decades, the people of La Oroya have been exposed to high levels of air pollution stemming from the complex’s emissions of toxic substances including lead, cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide. In the middle of the 2000s La Oroya was identified as one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world.

According to independent studies, 97% of children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years, and 98% of those between 7 and 12 years old still have high levels of lead in their blood. The percentage reaches 100% in La Oroya Antigua, the area closest to the smelter. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible.

Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Doe Run Company, began operating the complex after its privatization in 1997. Both the company and the Peruvian State have failed to comply with their obligations to prevent environmental impact and respect the human rights of the population of La Oroya. In response, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) and other organizations requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2005 to issue precautionary measures for people whose health was at serious risk from the pollution in the city. On August 31, 2007 the IACHR ordered the State to adopt measures to protect the health, integrity and life of a group of residents of La Oroya.

The precautionary measures require Peru to provide a specialized medical diagnostic to the beneficiaries plus specialized and adequate medical treatment to those who, based on the diagnosis, are in danger of irreparable damage to their physical integrity or lives.

Also since 2007, a complaint against Peru has been pending before the IACHR for the violation of human rights due to the toxic emissions from the La Oroya Metallurgical Complex. AIDA, APRODEH, Earthjustice and the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) are representing the victims and the beneficiaries of the precautionary measures in the case.

"AIDA has been working and monitoring the situation in La Oroya for over a decade. Over this time we have seen the extent of the damage to victims’ health in La Oroya due to the pollution that they have been and continue to be exposed to. The State must assume its obligations and fully comply with the IACHR´s precautionary measures that are in effect," said Maria Jose Veramendi, an AIDA legal advisor.

Meanwhile, parents of children with high levels of lead in their blood have tried to obtain compensation for the damages through a collective action in the United States (Missouri), headquarters of the complex’s parent company The Renco Group.

In late 2010, Renco initiated international arbitration alleging its rights as a foreign investor as guaranteed by the Free Trade Agreement between Peru and the United States were violated. Renco asked for compensation of $800 million.

"The company not only denied the impacts on the citizens and tried to evade responsibility, but in the face of the protests it pursued a campaign of stigmatization and attacks against those who were trying to defend their rights," said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the FIDH.
This case illustrates the conflict between international human rights law and investor protection. It also exposes the legal strategy of the companies allegedly involved in human rights violations that seek to evade responsibility and deny victims their right to reparation.

The FIDH report, entitled Metallurgical Complex of La Oroya: When investor protection threatens human rights, includes a series of recommendations directed at the Peruvian authorities and the company involved.

AIDA and APRODEH, as organizations representing the victims of La Oroya before the Inter-American Human Rights System, thank the FIDH and believe that the report is an important contribution to visualize the increasingly serious human rights violations suffered by the residents of La Oroya, who still expect the State to recognize its responsibility and bring justice to their claims. At the same time, the Archdiocese of Huancayo, whose role in defending the right to a healthy environment in La Oroya has been crucial, says the report is a major contribution to its work.

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