|OAS headquarters in Washington|
Environmental justice scholars and activists coined the terms “environmental racism” to describe the disproportionate concentration of environmental hazards in neighborhoods populated by racial and ethnic minorities. Having exhausted domestic legal remedies (or having concluded that these remedies are unavailable), communities of color in the United States are increasingly turning to international human rights law and institutions to challenge environmental racism.
However, the United States has ratified only a handful of human rights treaties, and has limited the domestic application of these treaties through reservations and declarations that preclude judicial enforcement in the absence of implementing legislation. Indeed, the U.S. has generally resisted scrutiny of its human rights record by domestic or international institutions on the basis of “American exceptionalism” -- the belief that the U.S. is unique in its commitment to freedom and equality and provides more robust protection of human rights than international law. What historical events triggered this resistance to international human rights law? What are the implications for human rights-based approaches to environmental protection?
This article explains how the struggle for racial justice in the United States at the height of the Cold War shaped U.S. attitudes to international human rights law. Using Mossville Environmental Action Now v. United States as a case study (currently pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), the article argues that international human rights law is far superior to U.S. domestic law as a means of addressing environmental injustice. However, its utility is constrained by legal doctrines developed over time but reinforced during the Cold War that restrict the enforcement of international human rights law in U.S. courts. Nevertheless, a victory for the Mossville petitioners would be immensely useful as part of a larger strategy to name and shame the United States, to bridge the gap between international law and domestic law, and to educate government officials and the public at large about the relationship between environmental protection and human rights.