My time before the region's leading court on human rights
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” - Marianne Williamson
By Astrid Puentes
As I sat before the Court, one woman in a long line of observers, my pulse raced. For the first time in my life I was speechless, even awestruck. Towering regally over me sat six men and one woman, dressed in robes. The seven judges of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.
Public speaking is something I do regularly and with ease, but I was seriously nervous! My heart was going to explode; my throat was tight. I was acutely aware of the power of what I was about to say.
I felt deep within myself the strength of my colleagues at AIDA. I sat up straight, took a deep breath, and leaned in closer to the microphone.
As I began to speak, my words bore the influence of the last 20 years.
I was representing AIDA in our very first intervention before the most important international human rights body in the Americas. We had been invited by the Court to comment on the consultative opinion raised by Colombian government on the link between environmental degradation and human rights; an issue reflecting the very core of our mission.
The basic question to be addressed was this:
If a megaproject damages the marine environment in the Greater Caribbean and, as a result, human rights are threaten or violated, should the State implementing the project be held accountable under international human rights law?
When I began my career in environmental law 20 years ago, this very moment was one of my goals.
I dreamt of engaging in this type of conversation before the Court; of influencing jurisprudence in the institution charged with protecting the human rights of the people of the Americas.
Now, because I sit proudly as co-director of AIDA, those dreams have come true. Not just for myself, but also for all the brave and thoughtful attorneys I work alongside.
The document we drafted represents countless hours of research and analysis, the contributions of human rights experts and environmental attorneys, decades of experience, lifetimes of dedication.
We drafted it so the Court would recognize environmental protection as a human rights issue; that a healthy environment is essential to the enjoyment of all human rights. We hope it will show the judges of the Inter-American Human Rights System that incorporating international environmental law and standards can help them implement their mission.
Remembering the months of work and the expert opinions in the document calmed me that day.
The testimonies I heard were like music to my ears—more than 20 people, one after the other, from States and civil society organizations, spoke of the relationship between the environment and human rights; they spoke of the power of using international environmental law to protect people and communities.
The arguments we crafted, together, made the link between the environment and human rights crystal clear.
We had the historic opportunity to highlight how, in some situations, environmental degradation violates human rights. Protecting our environment, therefore, is an international obligation of all States in the Americas.
When I finished speaking, I took a deep breath, and sat back in my chair.
A smile broke across my face, as my phone began to light up with messages from my colleagues from every corner of the Americas.
I left that day happily reflecting on the past 20 years, and wholly re-invigorated for 20 more. I left full of gratitude and pride for my team. And I left convinced of the power we have—as AIDA, as attorneys, as citizens, as human beings—to create change.
It all goes to show that, while we may be small, we are not alone. Together we are powerful and, together, we are capable of building a better world.
The decision is now in the hands of the Court, whose opinion has the power to influence the future of development in the Americas.