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End-of-visit statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak on his visit to Sierra Leone, 14-25 August 2017

25 August 2017

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, I undertook an official country visit to Sierra Leone, at the invitation of the Government, from 14 to 25 August 2017. The purpose of the mission was to monitor and assess steps taken by the Government of Sierra Leone to protect the human rights implicated by the management of hazardous substances and wastes.

I wish to emphasize at the outset that these are only preliminary observations. A full report of the mission, which will contain a more comprehensive analysis of the situation and recommendations from a human rights perspective, will be prepared and presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.

I would first like to begin by expressing my deep condolences to the victims of the tragic mudslide last week, which claimed approximately 500 lives, with 500 people still unaccounted for, and has left thousands homeless, including 4000 children. As the situation continues to unfold, my thoughts and prayers go to the families of those who’ve lost loved ones, those desperately waiting for news and people injured. During my visit, I met a team of Chinese doctors on site, providing medical assistance to survivors. Such international cooperation in relief efforts is essential. Similar catastrophes may occur during this period of heavy rains, and the threat of cholera outbreaks cannot be ignored. As tens of thousands are at grave risk, I take the opportunity to encourage further international assistance to relief efforts.

Further, I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Government of Sierra Leone for the invitation to visit the country and its exemplary cooperation, despite the national emergency. I would also like to thank the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP staff for facilitating the visit.

During the course of the last two weeks, I have had the honour to meet with the President of Sierra Leone. I also met with representatives of the central Government, the Human Rights Commission, the police, businesses, civil society organizations, local administrators, traditional leaders, and communities in both urban and rural settings.  During my time in Sierra Leone, I had the opportunity to undertake field trips to the cities of Bo and Makeni, the districts of Pujehun, Kono and Bombali. I also visited the Koidu Holdings’ (Octea) mining operations and Socfin’s plantations. I wish to thank everyone who took the time to meet with me.

Since the end of the civil war in 2002, Sierra Leone has experienced rapid economic development, experiencing periods of double-digit growth largely driven by foreign investment. While the Ebola outbreak and collapse of iron prices created a setback, the country is poised to rebound. However, according to the World Bank, the country still struggles with high youth unemployment, corruption, transparency in managing its natural resources, its fiscal policy, poor infrastructure and widespread rural and urban impoverishment. According to the World Food Programme, nearly half the population is food insecure and lives on less than $1.90 USD per day.

The country has vast natural resources and mining and large-scale agriculture are expected to continue to play a major role in future economic growth. Unfortunately, experience elsewhere has shown the adverse impacts of such investments on human rights, including due to the toxic pollution and waste created.

In fact, poverty increases the likelihood of and can exacerbate the magnitude of adverse impacts on human rights from toxics. Moreover, children, women, persons with disabilities, older persons, workers and minorities are often those most at risk of human rights abuses related to the unsound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

In Sierra Leone, I observed severe impacts on human rights from hazardous substances and waste. For example, I witnessed communities in and around the Freetown’s largest waste dump - including children and pregnant women - breathing the dark haze of air pollution, drinking, bathing, and cleaning in toxic water, and eating meat contaminated by waste.

Despite the visible evidence, the magnitude of the impacts of hazardous substances and waste on human rights in Sierra Leone remains largely unknown. Individuals lack access to information regarding contamination levels of air, water and food, as well as adverse impacts on human health, such as cancers, respiratory diseases, birth defects, and reduced cognition, among others. More needs to be done to realize the right to information, raise awareness among the public and ensure meaningful consultation and participation of communities in environmental decision-making.

Of serious concern is what appears to be a general inability of affected individuals and communities to access justice to defend their rights and seek redress. Legal remedies are either unavailable or not resorted to, including due to a pervasive lack of confidence in the justice system. Furthermore, a large number of disputes are resolved through informal justice mechanisms at the risk of reinforcing discrimination, and without the fundamental guarantees of substantive and procedural fairness.

The Government has launched an Agenda for Prosperity with the objective of elevating Sierra Leone to a middle-income country. The Agenda seeks to include the protection of human health and the environment in the Government efforts to reduce poverty and improve the living conditions of Sierra Leoneans.

The Agenda certainly provides a framework to both capitalize on development opportunities and strengthen development goals. Much of its success, however, will depend on the Government’s commitment to implement it by putting in place the appropriate regulatory standards, coordination mechanisms and allocating the necessary financial resources. Efforts to improve access to health care, water and sanitation, education, and gainful employment will - in no uncertain terms - be undercut by insufficient attention to pollution prevention and toxic risk reduction.

In a sprit of cooperation, and following extensive consultations, I would like to present some preliminary observations and recommendations for the Government’s consideration.

Notably, the Government has developed new laws, polices and institutions to strengthen protections from hazardous substances in short time. However, several of these remain in the draft stage, awaiting review by the Cabinet or Law Reform Commission. These include, for example, critical laws and policies for labor, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. The government should expedite the adoption of these laws and policies.

In the case of laws and policies in force, there was a widely held view of the need to strengthen implementation and enforcement. Some of the examples include policies for waste reduction, requirements for labor inspections at mining sites and the requirement for companies to have Community Development Agreements in place. The Government must strengthen the implementation and enforcement of existing laws, while also closing legislative gaps, establishing missing emissions standards, and developing laws and policies in areas where they are vague or absent.

Of serious concern is the lack of reliable data on emissions to air, water and soil of pollutants.  It is essential that the Government undertake robust monitoring of water and food contamination, air pollution, labor conditions and key health indicators to map priority areas for interventions.  

Transparency is a pillar of good governance.  We have heard concerning allegations that there is a lack of transparency, for example in the negotiation and content of terms and conditions of agreements negotiated between companies and governing authorities for royalties paid in exchange for the exploitation of lands. The Government should ensure that economic growth does not lead to a widening income gap, and those investments in less-sustainable models of economic growth are invested in more sustainable opportunities for advancement.

I urge the Government to undertake activities to raise awareness on the adverse impacts on human rights resulting from hazardous substances and wastes among the public and to foster participation in decision making by all relevant actors, in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation. Furthermore, the Government should acknowledge the important role of civil society as a stakeholder in promoting sustainable development, particularly in the context of natural resources exploitation, and take positive measures to ensure that an enabling environment exists for civil society. The Government should likewise recognize the promotion of justice and consolidation of the rule of law as central in its development policies and programs. 

Lastly, I call on the Government to increase international cooperation. It is commendable that the Government has ratified several international conventions on chemicals and waste, and I encourage the Government to continue its efforts to link human rights with its efforts to implement these important conventions.

During the course of my visit, it has become clear that the Government needs to pay closer attention to the following sectors and issues:  mining, from artisanal to large-scale operations; agriculture, including agrochemical use; municipal solid, liquid, industrial and medical waste; air pollution; and chemicals management.  The Government can and should take targeted risk-reduction measures in the above areas, recognizing the intrinsic hazards to health and life that they present.

Furthermore, there appears to be a need to enable structured cooperation and collaboration between MDAs with responsibility for hazardous substances and waste.  A Task Force could expedite action. I would encourage the Government to ensure transparency, accountability and public participation in such efforts. 

I must also take the opportunity to note widespread concerns regarding the unjust distribution of benefits to communities near mines and agricultural fields. Furthermore, there were numerous allegations of land grabs from community members, followed by intimidation, harassment and violence to stifle protest and compel acquiescence. 

It is my hope that these observations and preliminary recommendations can provide key governmental actors with a strategic framework to increase coordination of efforts, strengthen laws and policies, ensure effective enforcement of standards and further enhance access to information, participation and remedies. Even with the limited resources available, Sierra Leone can adopt cost-effective measures to ensure that investments in poverty reduction as well as development programs are sustainable.

Action to tackle poverty must go hand-in-hand with pollution prevention. Appropriately, reduction of pollution and contamination is interwoven throughout the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The Government of Sierra Leone has repeatedly expressed its determination to embark on a path towards a model of development that is green, sustainable and, rights-based, one that is inclusive and not open for business at any cost. 

It is now time to turn commitments into action. I hope that the Government of Sierra Leone will maintain the momentum generated over the past two weeks around the issue of human rights and hazardous substances and waste, and will continue to catalyze appropriate action through all stakeholders towards a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Sierra Leone.

Again, I thank the Government for their warm hospitality, candid honesty and willingness to open themselves up to scrutiny. I look forward to continued cooperation in the years ahead. I will remain available to the Government and other relevant stakeholders for any technical assistance that they might request.

In conclusion, I call on the international community, including relevant specialized agencies within the United Nations system, donors and other actors to consider providing further assistance to support the efforts of Sierra Leone to build a more prosperous future.