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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council

16 September 2015

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

Today I am presenting my first full report to the Human Rights Council on the right to information in the context of hazardous substances and wastes, and the report of my mission to Kazakhstan. I would at the outset like to express my gratitude to the Council for the confidence placed in me.

Since I took the position as the Special Rapporteur in August last year, I have had the opportunity to engage with victims, businesses and industries, scientists, civil society organizations and governments from around the world to discuss the impacts of hazardous substances and wastes on human rights, and their views on opportunities to better protect, realize and respect these rights.

I would like to briefly share one story I recently heard from these discussions about a young girl. When she was 3 years old, she was happy and healthy, running, laughing and playing as three year olds normally do. But then something changed. She began to stumble. And then the stumbles progressed into trouble walking. And then the seizures came. Local doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with her.

By the time she was seven years old, she “had completely lost control of her arms and legs. Her limbs contorted and became rigid. Her hands and fingers curled shut. She stopped talking. And still no could identify what was wrong.” At 10 years old, she never left her hut. Everyday, for the majority of her life, she lived in pain. Sadly, she died two weeks ago.

This young girl, like countless others, is the victim of mercury poisoning and the failure to realize the right to information. Throughout her region, mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, although the grave dangers are well established and safer alternatives exist. Babies throughout the region are born with deformities, seemingly healthy children stop talking and walking, and adults shake uncontrollably.

This story illustrates well the impacts that hazardous substances have on individuals. But the issue of realizing the right to information is far greater than one hazardous substance.

Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of different hazardous substances have been used by businesses with inadequate information on their properties and uses, as well as their fate as waste, to fully assess their impacts on human rights and prevent harm. The right of victims to an effective remedy, the right to meaningful participation, the right not to be subject to experimentation without consent, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and several other human rights have all been frustrated by large information gaps throughout the life cycle of substances and wastes. The production and use of the vast majority of hazardous substances is unregulated at the global level.

Hazardous substances from human activity can be found in the food people eat, the air people breathe, the water people drink, the products we buy, and the places we live, play and work. As a result, a cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals are found in people all over the world, including unborn and newborn babies during critical periods of development. It is well established that pre-natal and childhood exposure to toxic chemicals can cause irreversible and devastating health effects. Often, adverse effects are not visible for years or even decades after exposure, frustrating efforts to hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable.

Today, we are in the midst of an on-going global public health crisis due to hazardous substances. It is estimated that 62% of the volume of chemicals produced by industry are toxic. Time and time again, a chemical is produced and used for ten, fifteen sometimes twenty years before information becomes public that it can cause cancer or other serious and irreversible adverse effects. The number of hazardous substances used by industry around the world is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest over 2,000 different hazardous substances are produced, traded, used by workers, and in one manner or another, disposed.

Rates of cancer, diabetes and other illnesses linked to the production and use of hazardous substances have been on the rise over the past several decades. For example, over the past 17 years, there has been a twenty percent increase in childhood cancers; a twenty percent increase that cannot be explained by lifestyle choices or genetics alone. Children are now suffering from types of diabetes that in years past were only seen in adults. Breast cancer rates skyrocketed 40 percent in two decades. These and other diseases have been linked to the increased production and use of toxic chemicals. Children, minorities, indigenous people, workers, low-income communities and others are often exposed to higher levels of toxic chemicals, and all too often suffer disproportionately.

Although decades of insufficient action to prevent harm make the task today complex and perhaps overwhelming, solutions exist or can be developed to protect human rights. Central to these solutions is both the right to information and the responsibilities of businesses. As part of their human rights due diligence, business have a responsibility to develop and use less-hazardous chemicals, materials and production processes. Safer alternatives can be developed—but information must be available, accessible, functional and non-discriminatory in order to do so.

Today, information is neither available nor accessible about, inter alia, the safety of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market; the potential sources of exposure to substances with known and unknown hazards; the amount of human exposure to hazardous substances; and the impacts of exposure to a large number of hazardous substances starting from conception. According to reports by certain governments, 85% of industrial chemicals are approved for production and use without any health or safety information. Legislation presents a paradox in some cases, where regulators must first prove there is an unreasonable risk due to a chemical substance in order to ask the chemical’s manufacturer to provide necessary health and safety information in order for regulators to determine whether or not there is a risk. The public is aware that carcinogens and other hazardous substances are being manufactured, but claims of confidential business information can prevent the public from knowing the identity of the hazardous substance, or where it is used, produced or released. Consumers typically don’t know which products contain hazardous substances, even when chemical identities are provided.

Workers are among the most vulnerable given their high-levels of exposure, yet stories abound of the failure to realize their right to information about hazardous chemicals in the workplace, necessary to realize their right to a safe working conditions.

To protect human rights affected by hazardous substances, States are duty-bound to generate, collect, assess and update information; effectively communicate such information, particularly to those disproportionately at risk of adverse impacts; to ensure confidentiality claims are legitimate; and to engage in international cooperation to ensure that foreign Governments have the information necessary to protect the rights of people in their territory.

In discharging their duty to conduct human rights due diligence, businesses are responsible for identifying and assessing the actual and potential impacts of hazardous substances and wastes, either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships; to communicate information to other businesses, governments and the public effectively.

Last month, a series of massive chemical explosions claimed the lives of 173 people in Tianjin, China. As I also underlined in a public statement, this disaster serves as yet another tragic example of the need of information about hazardous substances to protect, respect and realize human rights. I am very concerned that information about the dangerous chemicals stored may not have been made available and communicated to the residents living nearby and to governmental entities tasked with protecting the public. Availability and accessibility of information on dangerous chemicals are essential to prevent or mitigate such disasters. For instance, firefighters may be at risk and may lose their lives if they do not know which chemicals are being stored and thus how to safely extinguish a fire. Firefighters may unknowingly spray water on chemicals that are explosive on contact with water, causing a chain reaction that can trigger large chemical disasters.

More than thirty years have now passed since the catastrophe in Bhopal, India claimed the lives of several thousands of people living near a chemical factory. Although Bhopal sparked laws and voluntary business initiatives to make information available and accessible to prevent such disasters in certain countries, it is clear that lessons of that disaster have still not been fully learned. The continuing recurrence across the world of industrial disasters involving toxic chemicals shows the urgent need to elevate global laws and standards to protect human rights from hazardous substances and wastes. The weak patchwork of global treaties for hazardous substances and waste is by no means sufficient for the task at hand.

Kazakhstan

During my first mission to Kazakhstan from 26 March to 8 April this year, I had the opportunity to witness both the importance and challenges in realizing the right to information on hazardous substances and wastes. I would like to now turn to my report on the mission to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is unquestionably a land with substantial natural resources, and the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the extractive industries. However, these resources present both economic opportunities as well as considerable risks to people living in Kazakhstan. There appeared evidence in every city I visited of a high-likelihood of human rights impacts caused by hazardous substances released from the extraction of natural resources, downstream processing, manufacturing activities, and the disposal of waste. In my visits around the country I observed large piles of uncovered hazardous waste, cities engulfed in air pollution, houses coated in dust from industrial activities, and heard numerous stories of illegal radioactive and hazardous waste dumpsites throughout the country.

I would like to commend Kazakhstan for ratifying most international human rights treaties, numerous environmental conventions, and for including key provisions within its national constitution. I believe these commitments reflect the Government’s aspirations to achieve a cleaner, more sustainable future. I offer these comments in hopes of accelerating Kazakhstan’s path towards the sound management of hazardous substances and in turn, preventing and mitigating human rights impacts on the people of Kazakhstan.

Given the government’s aspirations for economic growth primarily based on exploitation of these resources without fully implementing a robust system for the sound management of hazardous substances and wastes, I am deeply concerned that the people residing in Kazakhstan are in the midst of a high-risk situation.

For example, the village of Berezovka is located 5 kilometers from the world’s largest oil and gas condensate field. In November of last year, 19 children and 3 adults suddenly lost consciousness and began having seizures. The Karachaganak oil and gas field is operated by a consortium of several foreign investors and a state owned enterprise. Residents allege that the seizures and other chronic health problems are due to toxic emissions from the facility. A medical examination revealed that 80 percent of children have lung disease. The companies deny any responsibility.

Another example is from Kalachi, a town that is now known as the sleeping village. For the past three years, residents of Kalachi have fallen asleep for days, unable to wake up without medical intervention. Kalachi was the site of uranium mining during the Soviet era, but the cause of the sleeping sickness is still unknown.

After my official visit, I was pleased to hear that the Government has increased its collaboration with WHO to determine the cause of these sleeping episodes and is relocating the residents. I hope that the collaboration and preventative and precautionary approaches to known and unknown chemical risks continues.
In the course of my mission I observed issues that raised concerns regarding the realization and protection of several human rights recognized by Kazakhstan, including the right to access information, the right to free, active and meaningful participation, the right to an effective remedy, the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the principles of accountability, transparency and good governance.

Regarding the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the dynamic of both large, multi-national corporations and state-owned enterprises raises several issues for how the Government engages with these businesses to protect and respect human rights. Although some improvements are noted for a few companies in Kazakhstan, it has been brought to my attention that a high number of companies operating in the country, across a range of industries, do not always employ best environmental technologies or practices. It has also been raised that double-standards exist, where certain businesses do not employ available technologies to mitigate environmental emissions and thus respect human rights in Kazakhstan, despite using these technologies elsewhere.

I look forward to comments and suggestions from the Council on the present reports. In addition, I look forward to receiving invitations for country visits from as wide as possible a range of countries, in all regions of the world. I appeal to all stakeholders to continue to provide information and evidence relevant to this mandate, including on situations of particular human rights concern, at their earliest convenience and on an ongoing basis.

Thank you.