Strasbourg Court rebukes Italy for failure to uphold rights violated by corporations in ILVA case

Valeria Mongelli / Hans Lucas / via AFP

Paris, Rome. 6 May 2022 — In four judgments issued yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for violating the rights to private life and to effective remedy protected under Articles 8 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights in several cases concerning the pollution emitted by the former ILVA steel plant of Taranto, Italy.

FIDH and its member organisation in Italy, Unione Forense per la Tutela dei Diritti Umani (UFTDU), welcome these decisions [1] by which the Court insists that the impunity enjoyed by the company needs to end and condemns Italy for repeatedly failing to take responsibility for redressing the violations caused by the heavy pollution produced by the plant.

"We are deeply troubled that Italy persists in failing to address the situation in Taranto, and that citizens – particularly children – in the EU are still exposed to this level of pollution and harm."

Maddalena Neglia, head of the globalisation and human rights desk at FIDH

“This is particularly concerning at a time when discussions are underway at the European level regarding new instruments that would better protect human rights and the environment from corporate activities," Neglia concluded.

In April 2018, FIDH, UFTDU, and partner organisations Peacelink and Human Rights International Corner published a report denouncing the environmental and health crisis and the government’s inaction in the ILVA scandal. This is one of several alarming studies informing the Court’s decision. They show that children living in areas at risk of pollution are 54% more likely to develop cancer than the regional average; men 30% more likely; and women 20%. [2]

The detrimental consequences of the activities of ILVA on the environment were known to the Italian government since at least the 1990s. However, the adoption of preventive measures or sanctions was deliberately delayed, in flagrant violation of Italy’s European and international human rights obligations. The impact of the public health crisis on people living in Taranto was repeatedly denounced by several bodies and organisations, including recently by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights during its visit to Italy in October 2021.

“Enough is enough! The Italian government must take immediate measures to clean the area, as reiterated today in four new judgments,” said Prof. Anton Giulio Lana, president of UFTDU and the lawyer representing the applicants in one of the cases. “Sadly, the European Court did not go so far as to look into the merits of the claims for reparation by individuals living in the areas surrounding former ILVA who were seriously harmed by polluting emissions."

These judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which rarely accepts or renders judgments in cases related to business activities, follows its 2019 ruling in “Cordella and Others v. Italy” on the same matter. The decision represents another significant step further developing the Court’s jurisprudence in this regard. However, it is regrettable that the Court, while recognizing the violations by the Italian government and the harm caused by the company, granted compensation to claimants in only one of the cases.

The Italian government is now obliged to address the consequences of ILVA’s past activities and prevent future damages. But the government’s failure to fully execute the 2019 judgment sets a worrying precedent. The Court’s ruling must be promptly and fully implemented to finally guarantee effective and full access to justice to Taranto residents. If properly executed, these judgments will send a strong message across Europe that corporate human rights and environmental abuses will not go unpunished and that victims of violations can obtain justice.

The decisions are adopted amidst discussions at the EU level on new legislation proposed by the European Commission on Sustainable Corporate Governance, which would introduce binding standards for EU member states on corporate human rights and environmental due diligence. The ECtHR decisions and the negotiations over the draft directive both confirm a trend in Europe of regional organisations and courts setting a stricter threshold when it comes to corporate accountability and demanding higher standards from member states in enforcing their obligations. Italy’s failure to promptly and fully execute the ECtHR’s judgment would not only deny victims the reparation they are entitled to; it would also be at odds with this regional trend and compromise the Italian government’s standing on such matters.

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