Guerra and Ors. v. Italy

Application No. 14967/89; (1998) 26 EHRR 357; [1998] ECHR 7
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Residents of Manfredonia brought an action against the Italian government for failing to provide them with information about the health risks posed by a nearby chemical factory.

The residents of Manfredonia lived approximately one kilometer away from the Enichem chemical factory. The factory, which produced fertilizers and caprolactam, was classified as “high risk,” because it released large quantities of flammable gas. Accidents had occurred at the factory and in the surrounding areas on several occasions. In 1988, a committee of technical experts had established that the factory’s geographical position frequently caused these emissions to concentrate in Manfredonia. The committee’s report noted that a study by the factory showed that it had provided neither sufficient emission treatment equipment nor a complete environmental-impact assessment. From 1989, various activities of the factory were restricted for safety and health reasons, and by 1994, the factory had stopped producing fertilizer altogether.

420 residents of Manfredonia had earlier applied to the Magistrates’ Court to bring criminal proceedings against seven of the factory directors for the environmental and health risks caused by the factory. Five defendants did not receive a prison sentence because of amnesty provisions, statutes of limitation, or because the directors had paid a fine on the spot. The remaining two were convicted at trial but acquitted on appeal. The appeal also rejected the Applicants’ claim for compensation.

Although the local authorities were obligated to inform the local population of the risks and draw up emergency plans, there was still no emergency plan in 1995, nor were there procedures to inform the public in case of an accident.

The residents brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that the failure to provide them with the relevant information had infringed their freedom to receive and impart information under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), their right to respect for their private and family life under article 8 of the ECHR and their right to life under article 2 of the ECHR.

The Court rejected the claims on article 10, accepted the article 8 claim, and found it unnecessary to consider the article 2 claim.

In relation to article 10 of the ECHR, the Court held that the right to receive and impart information as part of the right to freedom of expression did not entail positive obligations on the part of the Italian authorities. Article 10 was a negative right that merely prevented a state from interfering with information that might be imparted by others. It was not applicable in cases such as the present, where the Applicants sought to positively require the state to collect and distribute its own information.

In relation to article 8, the Court affirmed that severe environmental pollution could interfere with the right to respect for home, private life, and family. It considered that the authorities had not taken the necessary measures to ensure the effective protection of this right. The Applicants had not been provided essential information about the risks of the factory or about emergency procedures until the factory had ceased production in 1994, despite the fact that Manfredonia was especially prone to danger if an accident occurred at the factory. As such, article 8 had been breached.

The Court considered it unnecessary to consider the article 2 claims in light of the finding that article 8 was violated.

The Court granted damages, but declined to grant an order requiring Italy to decontaminate the factory area and commission an epidemiological study, as such an order was beyond its competence and contrary to the principle that it was for the respondent state to choose the means of complying with ECHR rights.

“The Court reiterates that freedom to receive information, referred to in paragraph 2 of Article 10 of the Convention, ‘basically prohibits a government from restricting a person from receiving information that others wish or may be willing to impart to him’ (see the Leander v. Sweden judgment of 26 March 1987, Series A no. 116, p. 29, § 74). That freedom cannot be construed as imposing on a  State, in circumstances such as those of the present case, positive obligations to collect and disseminate information of its own motion.” Para. 53.

“The Court reiterates that severe environmental pollution may affect individuals’ well-being and prevent them from enjoying their homes in such a way as to affect their private and family life adversely (see,  mutatis mutandis, the Lόpez Ostra judgment cited above, p. 54, § 51). In the instant case the applicants waited, right up until the production of fertilisers ceased in 1994, for essential information that would have enabled them to assess the risks they and their families might run if they continued to live at Manfredonia, a town particularly exposed to  danger in the event of an accident at the factory.” Para. 60.