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Opening Remarks, United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos A. Orellana at the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly

27 October 2020, New York

Thank you, Mr. President.

Distinguished delegates, colleagues,

It is a real honor for me to address, for the first time, the UN General Assembly, in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

Last month the Human Rights Council renewed my mandate by consensus and confirmed it is to address the lifecycle of hazardous substances and wastes.

This year the toxics mandate celebrates 25 years of existence. In this time, the environmental injustices resulting from exposure to hazardous substances and wastes have become clearly visible.

More people die every year as a result of pollution and exposure than from all conflicts in the world combined; and millions of people suffer from disabilities due to hazardous substances. The impacts are bound to aggravate, as an industry that is currently worth more than $5 trillion USD is expected to double by 2030.

Therefore, in the 3 years ahead, I plan on carrying my mandate along three priority work streams:

  • First, environmental justice and racism;
  • Second, gaps in the global chemicals and wastes architecture; and,
  • Third, human rights responsibilities of business for toxic exposure.

Mr President,

I will now present key findings of the last report of my predecessor, Mr. Baskut Tuncak.

His report stresses that environmental injustice has been the driving force behind this mandate. The UN Commission on Human Rights established the mandate on "toxic waste" in 1995 to confront the shameful flow to the global south of waste originating in the global north.

Regrettably, the current practice of wealthy countries exporting highly hazardous pesticides and toxic industrial chemicals, which are banned on their home soil, to poorer nations lacking the capacity to control the risks, perpetuates global environmental injustice.

States have a duty to "prevent and minimize" exposure to hazardous substances to protect against preventable diseases and disabilities.

But the most vulnerable in society continue to find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide. They suffer under an invisible weight of systemic injustice, racism and discrimination. More often than not, they are "legally poisoned" by "permissible limits" of toxic exposures that do not account for human rights protections.

Children worldwide continue to be born "pre-polluted," and denied of their right to bodily integrity. The widespread childhood exposure to different toxic substances is causing a "silent global pandemic" of diseases and premature deaths. Chemicals that interfere with hormones in children's endocrine system are turning them into adults and robbing them of their youth. Workers worldwide are often forced to make the abhorrent choice between their health and income. It is estimated that one worker dies every 30 seconds from exposure to toxics. 160 million cases of occupation diseases are reported annually.

This is a vicious form of legalized exploitation. It is long overdue that the International Labour Organisation recognise safe and healthy work as one of its Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

My predecessor developed a set of 15 "Principles on the protection of workers from exposure to toxic substances." The Human Rights Council has encouraged their implementation.

Mr. President,

States continue to permit a sense of impunity in the private sector. While toxic exposures can be reduced -- in pesticides; manufacturing; extractive industries; consumer products; and nuclear power and weapons -- the failure of States to compel businesses to conduct human rights due diligence, is leading us toward the increasing toxification of our planet and bodies.

This is a dystopian future that no one wants but for which the political will is lacking to prevent.

Adequate information -- on risks and safer alternatives -- can help prevent harm. However, information is neither available nor accessible about the safety of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market or at the workplace, or about emissions to the environment.

In the end, the systematic denial of effective remedies perpetuates impunity for human rights violations and abuses due to hazardous substances and wastes.

Before concluding, Mr President,

I wish to reflect on two issues concerning the road ahead.

UNEP reported last year that we would not achieve the global goal to minimize the adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020, as agreed in the Johannesburg Summit, almost twenty years ago. This underscores the critical importance of injecting a rights-based approach to the global post-2020 chemicals and waste framework.

Second, in the face of persistent environmental injustice, the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is long overdue. Its effective realization can help us overcome the toxic chemical assault on our lives, health and environment.

To conclude, Mr President,

The need for a human rights approach to hazardous substances and wastes is today more pressing than ever.

A life of dignity is not possible on a planet contaminated with hazardous substances and wastes.

We all have our part to play, to ensure that our human right to live free from toxic pollution is no longer treated as a privilege of the few.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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