Iranwire – While a recent surge in air pollution levels was putting people’s health in Tehran and other Iranian cities in jeopardy, the mother of a nine-year-old girl in London, UK proved in court that her daughter’s death had been directly related to air pollution.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter Ella died in 2013 after a severe asthma attack, embarked on a years-long campaign for justice that culminated in a landmark court ruling in December 2020, which declared toxic fumes had been the true cause of her daughter’s death after a sharp rise in nitrogen dioxide levels in south-east London.
Could people in Iran who have lost loved ones with respiratory problems also try to hold the authorities to account for bad air quality – either at home or in the international courts?
Around the same time as the Mayor of London and government officials attended court to give evidence on the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, officials in Iran’s Ministry of Energy and industry representatives were ramping up commercial consumption of sub-standard mazut fuel in Iran.
Since December, the level of pollutants in the air has risen to dangerous levels, poisoning the air people breathe in Tehran, Isfahan, Arak and other cities. The skies have darkened and many of the cities’ masked inhabitants are terrified of the danger this may pose to people who were already vulnerable to severe Covid-19. A sharp rise in sulphur dioxide in the air can cause lung problems and even lung cancer, while weakening the body’s immune system. It is even though to be linked to brain disorders.
Despite this, government officials pressed on with the introduction of non-standard diesel fuel and mazut to major power plants. Initially they claimed this was not happening, but indicators published by Tehran Air Control Company showed a surge in sulphur dioxide, suggesting exactly what kind of fuel had created this black umbrella over Tehran.
Finally, Issa Kalantari, head of the Department of Environment, confirmed that the burning of mazut in power plants was indeed taking place and having an impact on air pollution levels. Frankly, he said, it would be better to cut the power altogether.
In the week leading up to Friday, January 15, electricity outages did indeed take place in various parts of Tehran and other cities. This is thought to have been linked to efforts to burn less mazut. Then on the Friday, a strong wind – rather than the efforts of officials – reduced the level of smog and toxic fumes in the skies over Tehran, allowing the city to breathe a little.
In recent decades, Tehran has experienced year-on-year increases in air pollution during the cold season. Last year, the Ministry of Health announced that air pollution plays a role in the deaths of 33,000 people in Tehran every year.
In principle, would it be possible to bring the responsible officials to justice where their actions led to a worsening of the city’s air quality? The doctors who gave evidence in the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah pointed out that the number of severe asthma attacks in her area had increased as air pollution intensified. Furthermore, Ella’s mother argued that city officials had failed to warn people of the dangerous effects of air pollution. The negligence of the City of London and government officials, she said, represented a violation of her daughter’s human right to life.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic also recognizes the right to life. The Iranian state is obliged to ensure a healthy environment for its citizens. However, the Iranian judiciary has not been inclined to recognize this right in the past. If it were, then public prosecutors – normally so quick to crack down on little girls dancing at a municipal party or posting on social media – would surely have at least warned the authorities.
In the absence of safeguarding by the Iranian judiciary, are international legal institutions able to address the matter of air pollution and endangering the lives of citizens in Iran? The issue goes beyond the capital and major cities, but also affects industrial areas such as Assaluyeh, where the extreme volume of pollutants in the air poses an even more serious risk to the lives of workers and locals.
Nasser Karami, a climatologist and environmental expert, tells IranWire that contrary to other rights such as freedom of expression, education, and the right to choose one’s religion, the right to health has not yet been addressed and its dimensions have not yet been fully determined. “Even in cases where human rights are fully transparent, there is little public guarantee that an international legal body will pursue it when governments violate it,” he says.
No one organization is tasked with monitoring this, Mr. Karami said, and further, “there are cases that are not unique to one country: for example, acid rain that is caused by air pollution in one country and falls on another country. The use of coal fuel in Britain caused acid rain in Scandinavia and specifically in Sweden. The country sued and the European Union intervened, forcing Britain to eliminate coal fuel. But it probably would not have met such a fate if it had rained in Britain itself.”
The lawyer Moin Khazaeli also said it might be possible to address the Islamic Republic’s violations of air and environmental pollution in international courts, but it seems unlikely. What is known as environmental law is part of the so-called “third generation” of human rights, which despite seeming self-evident is not presently taken as seriously.
So far, the International Court of Justice is the body that has arbitrated in legal cases related to environmental harm. This has included, for instance, a complaint by the Ecuadorian government against Columbia that stated the latter was contaminating its border zones through widespread crop-spraying.
“If pollution is due to the direct action of a government,” Moin Khazaeli told IranWire, “and it specifically leads to the deaths of citizens, such as a chemical attack, international institutions will intervene and may even accuse that government of war crimes. But air pollution from relatively conventional sources does not cause the intervention of international legal institutions.”
“Many of the elements known today as coming under ‘environmental law’ are those that are mentioned in international declarations such as the Stockholm Declaration or the Rio Declaration, or others that have no legal obligation. These are not mandatory and do not impose an obligation on countries to comply.
“In the case of international agreements such as the Vienna Convention and the Convention on Climate Change, the enshrining of their ratified guidelines in international law is binding on member states; but even then, if a country violates them, there is no criminal means to deal with it. The civil route usually takes the form of political discussions and economic pressure.”
At worst, it seems, the Islamic Republic setting the conditions for dangerous levels of pollution are likely to spark to a reaction from human rights organizations and environmentalists.
But there might yet be hope for individual cases. Nasser Karami notes that in some instances, a determined enough plaintiff has been able to fight back. In 2004, he said, animal rights activist Dr. Mehrnaz Atri proved in court that the over-loading of packmules in Darakeh weakened to the point that they risked contracting salmonella, a disease posing a risk to animals and humans. As a result, she succeeded in obtaining a court order that determined the appropriate weight for the animals’ cargo.