Speech by Sophie Foundation Chair Gunhild Ørstavik

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 2006

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends, Estimados Amigos!

We are gathered here to celebrate Romina Picolotti, the Argentinean lawyer and human rights activist, and winner of the Sophie Prize for 2006.

Romina Picolotti has done groundbreaking work in linking problems of environmental destruction to the struggle for basic human rights. To her, crime against nature is a human rights violation.

Picolotti has given poor and disempowered people rights-based protection against exploitation and environmental destruction. And she has demonstrated how the universal human rights are expressed demands for social change.

Most people agree that human rights and environmental protection are our most urgent global challenges. There is an interdependence between the two imperatives. They are the core and indivisible elements of the concept sustainable development. 

Sustainable development indicates a healthy and productive life

in balance with nature. The fundamental basis of the human rights is that we have the right to certain goods or the right to protection from abuse, for the sole reason that we are born as human beings.

The beauty of the rights is that they apply to every living man

and woman on earth, regardless of social class, ethnic background, sex and religion. They are valid everywhere, in any situation and at all times.

For many people this may sound like wishful thinking, for Romina Picolotti it is the essence of all her work.

Human rights are designed to give citizens the legal right to protection against violations and to guide states.  Where human rights are effectively protected, there is no need or occasion to actually use them as legal instruments.

Human rights are, in principle universal, indivisible and inviolable. Nevertheless experience, shows that content, value and weight vary according to the social and political context. During the last decades, the rate and extent of globalisation

has created an international capitalist system that affects all national states and most industries in the world.

Capital, labour, technology and other resources are, at a gradually increasing tempo, being transferred back and forth between those geographical places offering the greatest profit at any time.

While businesses operate in a spirit of deregulation and free trade, many countries lack the competence, power and political will to provide the best care and protection for their citizens and wider public interests.

The result has been an accumulation of economic and political power in large-scale trans-national companies and strong financial institutions, and an undermining of sustainable development and basic human rights. In almost every instance labour rights have been weakened.

In the context of human rights, we see that while some rights are given priority,

others are violated to fulfil rights claimed by the more powerful actors. 

The right to freedom coupled with the right to private property, have created a demand for a liberal, market based economy.

This development is often at the expense of the right to social security, the right to participate and to organise.

Romina Picolotti is the founder of the Centre for Human Rights and Environment, solely dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights violated by environmental destruction.

The centre advocates for corporate compliance of environmental law and human rights.

It also monitors large international financial institutions such as the World Bank, to ensure compliance with their own environmental and social guidelines and policies.

In addition Picolotti founded the first legal clinic for human rights and environment, giving free legal assistance to poor groups and local communities. 

In the 1990s, Picolotti worked with human rights organisations and with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, assisting victims of the dictatorial regimes during Latin America’s “dirty war” before international courts.

She also trained judges and prosecutors in Cambodia on human rights in order to establish a legal system addressing the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Through her work with local communities and indigenous peoples, often in remote and environmentally rich and sensitive areas, Romina saw how irresponsible development and privatisation could ruin traditional lifestyles and undermine the rights of the poor.

She recognised that the legal systems to protect these victims were largely unavailable despite serious impacts on people’s health, culture and livelihoods.

Romina Picolotti decided to explore whether human rights could be an effective instrument to bring justice in cases of environmental degradation.

In the Inter-American Human Rights System her efforts resulted in a ground-breaking decision in favour of the Awas Tigni Indigenous Community of Nicaragua, forcing the state of Nicaragua to protect it against commercial lumbering on their lands.

Picolotti is now focused on another equally ground-breaking case involving the construction of the world’s largest papermill industry on the river between Argentina and Uruguay.

More than 300 000 people will be directly affected by the waterborne pollution from the industry, which is based on second rate technology and poor analysis.

In this paper mill project, partly financed by Nordea, Picolotti recognised the pattern of contaminating industries choosing to move to the global south where environmental controls are less strict and where companies proceed with controversial projects against public interest, sometimes with irreversible negative effects.

Romina Picolotti’s view is that, in order to be effective instruments for the protection of the environment and all human beings, it is necessary to strengthen and expand

the scope and content of the human rights.  If we do they will offer protection for all people, including generations not yet born.

The Sophie Foundation has borrowed a motto from Mahatma Gandhi:

Never underestimate an individual’s ability to change the world.

For us, Romina Picolotti is such an individual. She is guiding us on alternative roads and demonstrating new tools to obtain a sustainable development and dignity for all. I am convinced that we will hear a lot more from her in the future.

I would like to end, by lending voice to another Indian, the writer and activist Arundhati Roy from her speech at the World Social Forum in Puerto Allegre, Brazil:

Remember this:

We be many and they be few.
They need us more than we need them.
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing…" 

(Reading of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25)