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Opening remarks, United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, at the 45th Session of the Human Rights Council

21 September 2020

Madam President, distinguished delegates, colleagues,

It is a real honor for me to address, for the first time, the Human Rights Council, in my capacity as new Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. 

I want to express my sincere gratitude to the Council for entrusting me with this appointment.

Madam President,

This year the toxics mandate celebrates 25 years of existence. Back in 1995, States, led by countries of the African Group, were determined to confront the negative implications for human rights of the dumping in poor countries of hazardous waste generated in rich countries.

When the Council, by consensus, renewed the mandate in 2011, the Council also reframed it to address the whole lifecycle of hazardous substances and wastes.

There’s much work to be done. The sheer magnitude of the human rights implications of the assault on the rights of present and future generations by global chemicals and waste is yet to be fully grasped.

More people die every year as a result of pollution and exposure to dangerous substances than from all conflicts in the world combined. Millions of people suffer from illness and disabilities caused by exposure to hazardous substances.

What’s more, the life and health impacts of toxics are bound to aggravate. An industry that is currently worth more than $5 trillion USD is expected to double by 2030.

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

Madam President,

Fighting environmental injustice has been a key driving force of the toxics mandate. From electronic-waste to shipbreaking to plastics pollution, the transfer of waste to the Global South calls for a renewed commitment by all States for global environmental justice.

In 25 years of the mandate, we also have come to understand that hazardous substances and wastes pose a truly global challenge.  Children’s smaller and developing bodies are particularly vulnerable to the silent pandemic of toxic chemicals.  Indigenous communities in the Arctic have suffered from exposure to persistent chemicals released thousands of kilometres away. One worker dies every 30 seconds from exposure to toxics, including viruses, industrial chemicals, pesticides, dust, and radiation.

We are in the face of a truly global toxic catastrophe. Almost 20 years ago, the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development pledged to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste by 2020. Last year, however, the UN Environment Programme reported that we will not achieve this global 2020 goal.

In simpler words…,>we are steadily poisoning our planet and ourselves. This has devastating impacts for human rights.

The duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substancesencompassesprotection of various human rights. No State can meet its human rights obligations without preventing human exposure to pollution, toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, viruses, wastes, and other hazardous substances. 

Exposure to the COVID-19 virus is no exception.

According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States have a duty to “prevent and minimize” exposure to hazardous substances, in order to protect against preventable diseases and disabilities.

Therefore, the duty is one of the State to prevent exposure, including to viruses.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a microscope of existing patterns of vulnerability, inequality and discrimination.

Some countries implemented good practices, including rapid responses, access to health for all, and adherence to recommendations from the scientific and international community.

Regrettably, many others exhibited inappropriate action or blatant inaction.  In numerous examples, States created situations where the most marginalized and vulnerable communities were at the greatest risk of death. Some States even went as far as to silence doctors and scientists who warned about the spread and proportion of the pandemic.

Environmental degradation, climate change, and land use changes are key factors in the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

An unhealthy environment also causes, or contributes to, nearly all of the underlying health conditions that make people extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

Air pollution, for example, causes and contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular problems that significantly increase the risk of life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

Madam President,

I would like to reiterate that States have a duty to prevent exposure to toxics. Yet, even when States knew the risk, they did not take the steps to prevent exposure.

Businesses have corresponding responsibilities, including through undertaking human rights due diligence. Yet, many ignored or outright rejected their responsibilities.

The COVID-19 crisis should reinforce the fact that our interconnected world requires global-level crisis management, strong international cooperation, and solidarity.

A weakness in any country is a threat to all.

Everyone has a right to be protected from exposure to hazardous substances and environmental pollution.  Exposure to COVID-19 is no exception. Every human being is essential.

Madam President,

I will now present key findings from the country visit reports of my predecessor, Mr Tuncak.

During his visit to Brazil, he found that Brazil was for many years a leader in the recognition of environmental rights.

Sadly, despite positive advancements in recent decades, Brazil is in a state of deep regression from human rights principles, laws, and standards, in violation of its international obligations.

My predecessor observed the horrific impacts on millions of lives of extractive industries. He observed the aftermath of the 2019 collapse of Vale’s tailing dam in Brumadinho, and the 2015 collapse of Samarco’s tailings dam in Mariana.

He heard that over 300 families in Piquiá de Baixo, living across the fence from steel plants since the 1970s, have had their human rights abused to this day, by companies including Vale.

Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian and other communities alleged powerful agribusinesses intentionally spray pesticides on them as “chemical weapons,” to drive them away from their lands.

According to him, if left unchecked, the situation in Brazil stands to spiral into not only a national calamity, but also one with phenomenal regional and global repercussions, including the destruction of our climate system. 

To these ends, my predecessor recommends that the Human Rights Council hold an inquiry into the current human rights situation in Brazil. As the situation continues to deteriorate, he recommends a special focus on environmental, public health, and labour protections, drawing in particular on the expertise of Special Procedures.

He also recommends that the Council hold a special session on the protection of the Amazon rainforest and human rights. Exposure to Covid-19, systematic fires and deforestation, toxic pollution, and killing of defenders must be addressed.

Companies implicated in clear human rights abuses, including Vale, should be held accountable for what can only be described as environmental and occupational crimes.

Madam President,

During my predecessor’s visit to Canada, he found that many communities in Canada continue to face environmental injustice from toxic exposures. He also found discrimination in Canada’s laws and policies regarding hazardous substances and wastes.   

In his report, he recommends Canada recognize the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, including the duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances. 

Marginalized groups, and indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada.

Emblematic cases of discrimination against Indigenous peoples arose, including 50 years of mercury poisoning of the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) paint a disturbing picture of health impacts of the oil sands, also referred to as “tar sands”, which are anything but sustainable.

Further, the situation of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, surrounded on three sides by over 60 industrial facilities, was profoundly unsettling.

Communities abroad in States hosting Canadian businesses also endure enormous burdens that would not be acceptable in Canada. The Porgera Joint Venture Mine in Papua New Guinea, the Marlin Mine in Guatemala, and Block 192 in the Peruvian Amazon displayed disturbing impacts of Canadian extractive industries abroad.

Certain Canadian companies sent shipments of waste to several countries in Asia, including the Philippines, in apparent contravention of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes.

My predecessor remains, as do I, optimistic that Canada will embrace the many opportunities to transition to a cleaner, healthier and more equitable economy.

Madam President,

It is undisputed that Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities were housed by the United Nations on a site contaminated with lead and other toxic substances causing severe impacts on health, in violation of their rights to life, health, and physical integrity.

Madam President,

As the mandate celebrates its 25th anniversary, the challenges imposed by hazardous substances and wastes could not be more serious.

In the 3 years ahead, I am planning on carrying my mandate, within the parameters of the Council’s resolution, along three priority work streams:

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

On environmental justice and environmental racism, I plan to look at the human rights impacts of hazardous substances and wastes on people in vulnerable situations. This is often the case of indigenous peoples exposed by extractive industries. Toxics in water and air deprive indigenous peoples of their sources of spiritual and material sustenance. In addition, I plan to build on the excellent work carried out by my predecessor on children and workers.

Secondly, on international treaties on chemicals and wastes, there are serious questions of gaps and effectiveness. I plan to tackle the human rights implications of plastics, dangerous pesticides, mercury in small-scale gold mining, and e-waste. Also, the design of the post-2020 global chemicals framework requires a human rights-based approach. There are thousands of hazardous substances in the market today, whose risks and hazards remain unknown. Among other aspects, States must avoid addressing the risks of one chemical at a time. Instead, a holistic approach to chemicals of global concern is of utmost importance. Similarly, States must cease the export of hazardous substances banned for use in their territories.
And thirdly, on human rights responsibilities of businesses for toxic exposure, there are both systemic and case-work issues that need attention. Businesses must improve their upstream and downstream due diligence to prevent exposure to toxics, and to secure an effective remedy in cases of violations.

These three work streams will allow me to address both structural as well as emerging human rights problems in the chemicals and waste field.

For example, I plan to defend the right to science against disinformation campaigns. The intentional spread of false information undermines society’s ability to address environmental risks. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently released a General Comment on the right to benefit from scientific progress. This document is a good basis to further explore human rights standards regarding disinformation campaigns that purport to seed uncertainty and delay or divert attention. Action on hazardous substances and wastes is needed now. And science has a key role to play in States’ duty to address risks and prevent exposure.

Madam President,

The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the centrality of the right to a healthy, clean, safe and sustainable environment, for the prevention of the emergence of the disease, as well as for reducing vulnerability. I therefore wholeheartedly echo the call made by more than 900 organizations from civil society worldwide.

The right to a healthy environment protects the core elements of the natural environment that enable a life of dignity.  It’s global recognition is long overdue. 

The right to a healthy environment strengthens our ability to challenge activities that cause environmental harm. The right also strengthens our response to the existential environmental threats facing humanity.

For 50 years since the Stockholm conference on the human environment, there has been much debate about the content and scope of the right. We now know that it can serve as an umbrella right that brings together the normative dimensions of the interface between human rights and environment.  We also know that this right can help broaden our awareness of the interconnectedness of the web of nature, and our place in it.  The right to a healthy environment can foster an ethics of respect to the earth. and to one another. 

It is high time for the Council to recognize the right to a healthy, clean, safe, and sustainable environment. The United Nations should not distance itself from the peoples of the world.  It should heed their clamor for justice and respect for human rights in a healthy planet. 

To conclude my introductory remarks, Madam President:

I wish to highlight that life of dignity is not possible on a planet contaminated with hazardous substances and wastes.

During my tenure, I intend to build on the excellent work of my predecessors and harness the strength of human rights norms and mechanisms to confront the global toxic assault on our life and health.

Thank you very much, Madam President.