Court ruling in Kenya: A milestone in environmental justice
In a positive development for environmental justice, the Owino Uhuru settlement in Kenya won the equivalent of US$13 million in compensation for the devastating impacts on the environment and the health of a community caused by lead poisoning from a nearby smelter that recycled batteries.
On 16 July, the Land and Environment Court in Mombasa awarded compensation to the residents and ruled that the community’s rights to life, a healthy environment, the highest attainable standard of health and clean and safe water had been contravened and ordered the Government of Kenya and two companies to pay compensation.
The ruling came four years after the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the 3,000 residents living in Owino Uhuru. It also came ahead of the tenth anniversary of the landmark Kenyan Constitution and Bill of Rights, which specifically uphold the right to a clean and healthy environment and provide for the legal enforcement of environmental rights.
“We were very excited,” said Phyllis Omido, founder and Head of the CJGEA. “Because we were suing the Government and corporations, we were not sure…if the judge would be bold and fearless enough to pronounce justice.”
A decade of campaigning for justice
When her baby son fell seriously ill with lead poisoning, Phyllis Omido, a former employee of the smelter, began a campaign to close the plant. She founded the CJGEA, an environmental grassroots group that advocates for the rights of communities poisoned by toxic chemicals from Kenya’s extractive industries. For nearly a decade, Phyllis and other community activists have fought against the presence and effects of lead in the community.
UN Human Rights heard of her fight and offered to help as part of its mandate to support implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and protect civic space. In addition, UN Human Rights worked with Kenyan authorities to ensure the protection of members of the CJGEA and the settlement when they were threatened.
“UN Human Rights is the only international partner that directly funded the litigation,” said Phyllis. “They also assisted us in monitoring and documenting the case. They stood with us when witnesses were harassed, intimidated and afraid, even sending a team into the community. Without UN Human Rights, we would have given up, many times.”
Moreover, Phyllis’ work on environmental justice led her to create the Land and Environment Defenders Network, which is also supported by UN Human Rights. Its advocacy has led the Government to close 10 toxic waste smelters over the last five years.
“Environmental human rights issues are on the rise, and as long as that is the case, I have work to do,” Phyllis said. “We still have an unjust society, especially regarding environmental governance and human rights.”