The Sophie Prize 2006: The Jury's Decision

Romina Picolotti

The Sophie Prize for 2006 is awarded to the Argentinean lawyer and human rights activist Romina Picolotti. Ms Picolotti, born in Argentina, is a lawyer and specialises in international law. She has done groundbreaking work in linking problems of environmental destruction to the fight for basic human rights. Romina Picolotti has given poor and disempowered rights-based protection against exploitation and environmental destruction. Says Chairman of the Board Gunhild Ørstavik; she shows how human rights operate not in isolation from, but intimately connected with, the environment.

The Sophie Prize of 100,000 US dollars and is awarded for the ninth time. The prize was established in 1997 by the writer Jostein Gaarder and his wife Siri Dannevig.

In 1999, Romina Picolotti founded the Centre for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), the world’s first organisation solely dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights violated by environmental destruction. CEDHA aims to contribute to sustainable development by illustrating the symbiotic relationship between people and nature.

Picolotti also founded the first human rights and environment legal clinic, giving free legal assistance to poor groups and local communities. She advocates for corporate compliance of environmental law and human rights, pushing to elevate the threshold on corporate social responsibility to include human rights-based obligations to protect stakeholder communities impacted by irresponsible corporate behaviour. CEDHA’s work also monitors large international development infrastructure financing, to ensure that international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank are complying with their own environmental and social safeguards.

In the late 1990s, Picolotti worked with human rights organizations and with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, helping bring justice to human rights abuses committed by dictatorial regimes during Latin America’s “dirty war”. She represented victims before international courts, and worked in Asia training judges and prosecutors on human rights and legal procedure as well as with indigenous and local communities on accessing justice in the face of human rights violations. Through her work with local communities, many times in remote and environmentally rich and sensitive areas, she came to understand how irresponsible development and privatisation could ruin traditional lifestyles undermining the rights of the poor. She recognized that the legal systems built to protect these victims were largely unavailable to poor communities despite serious impacts to their health, heritage, culture and livelihoods.

Romina Picolotti decided to explore whether human rights could be an effective instrument to bring justice in cases of environmental degradation. Her research into this dilemma helped bring human rights discourse into human rights and environmental legal thinking, and materialized in a ground-setting amicus brief presented to the Inter-American Human Rights System, helping win a ground-breaking human rights and environment decisions in favour of the Awas Tigni Indigenous Community of Nicaragua, against illegal private lumbering occurring on their lands.

Picolotti is now focused on another ground-setting human rights violations case involving a mega investment with second rate technology in the papermill industry by Botnia of Finland and ENCE of Spain, on the river border between Argentina and Uruguay, with over 300,000 directly affected people by what is to be the largest foreign direct investment in Uruguay’s history at US$ 1.8 billion. Picolotti quickly recognized the worrisome pattern of contaminating industries choosing to move to the global south where environmental controls are less strict, where companies can strike lucrative tax-exempt deals with developing country governments, refuse to recognize local courts should they violate the law, and proceed with controversial projects against the public interest, failing to comply with basic international industry standards or mandatory environmental and social safeguards. Picolotti not only filed a complaint against the World Bank’s Compliance Advisory Ombudsman for failed policy compliance of the IFC-financed projects, but chose to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the first time ever that a human rights tribunal is reviewing violations caused by a World Bank project, placing World Bank activity in a binding judicial forum, an innovative approach to addressing the claim by many international organizations that they are immune from human rights obligations. Picolotti is now pressing private financial institutions such as the Nordic-based NORDEA, and ING Group of Netherlands, both slated to finance important portions of the papermill investment, to uphold their public commitments to invest responsibly and promote sustainable development, as they state in their Corporate Social Responsibility policies.

The jury’s decision

The jury has awarded the Sophie Prize for 2006 to Romina Picolotti with the following reasoning; she has:

  • Fought for human rights, the environment, and democracy
  • Illustrated how exploitation of nature may lead to exploitation of human rights
  • Worked persistently to give poor an opportunity to claim their rights
  • Challenged multinational companies and financial institutions, including the World Bank, on the negative social and environmental effects of their operations.

The jury hopes that the prize will inspire the winner and others to use universal human rights as an instrument for operationalising collective social, economic and cultural rights. This will make human rights a stronger instrument for building democracy and contribute to a more just distribution of the world’s resources.