Abidjan, 8 August 2008
Mr. Okechukwu Ibeanu, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights issued this statement today:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to begin by thanking the Government of Cote d’Ivoire for extending an invitation to me in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights to visit the city of Abidjan from 3 to 8 August 2008. This invitation was indeed long-awaited.
I would like to extend my appreciation to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests, which took the lead in the preparation and organisation of this mission. My warmest appreciation also to the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire, for their excellent organisation and provision of technical and logistical support as well as local knowledge for the purpose of this mission.
My visit here was to gather first-hand information about the toxic waste dumping around the district of Abidjan that happened in August 2006 and its effect on the human rights of the residents of Abidjan.
During my mission, I was able to meet with a variety of stakeholders, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Environmental Committee of the National Assembly, Former President of the National Commission of Enquiry on the toxic waste dumping, President of the International Commission on the toxic waste dumping in the district of Abidjan, National Human Rights Commission of Cote d’Ivoire, Governor of the District of Abidjan, Attorney- General’s Office, Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, CIAPOL, Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries, Civil Protection Authority, Ministry of the City and Urban Hygiene, Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Autonomous Port of Abidjan, specialised UN agencies, the World Bank, members of civil society, chiefs of villages and victims who have been directly affected by the dumping.
I also had the opportunity to visit some of the dumpsites in the District of Abobo, Akouedo and Vridi.
19 August 2008 will mark the 2nd anniversary of the toxic waste dumping in Abidjan. This terrible tragedy resulted in at least 16 deaths and more than 100,000 other victims.
At the outset, it is fair to say that the Government did not have the capacity and was not prepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude. I acknowledge that the Government had a lot problems to deal with. However, while various relevant Ministries were mobilized to deal with the crisis, many did not have the capacity or the budget to respond adequately. While meeting with different Ministries, I realised that there was a lack of information sharing amongst them. Ministries seem to be interested in carrying out their specific mandates but had limited knowledge of the other activities that were being carried out by their counterparts. I would encourage the different Government bodies to start engaging with each other on a more regular basis and create greater synergies with each other. Given the challenge of inadequate capacity and financial means, it would be important to start acting and implementing follow-up activities with one unified approach and to ensure that such an incident never happens again. I acknowledge that the Presidential cell has played a coordinating role. However, there is still more that can be done. I would like to call on the Government to include civil society and victim associations in the follow-up of this crisis. Their voice is essential in informing the Government about the needs of the people and the realities on the ground.
According to the Government, the waste was dumped in a total of 18 dumping points across 7 sites, namely, Abobo, Akouedo, Koumassi, Maca, Plateau Dokui, Route d’Alepe and Vridi. After almost two years, these sites have still not been decontaminated and continue to threaten the lives and health of tens of thousands of residents, across different social spectrums in Abidjan. Victims whom I have met with continue to complain of headaches, skin lesions, nose, throat and lung problems as well as digestive problems. I am very concerned about the situation especially for women, who have complained of an increase in premature births, early menopause and miscarriages since the dumping occurred. The Government has informed me that it does not have the technical capacity to clean up and decontaminate the dumpsites in a timelier manner. This should be an absolute priority. I am calling on the international community to provide more technical assistance to Cote d’Ivoire urgently. I applaud bodies such as UNEP and the Basel Convention that have rendered technical assistance by working with the Government to set up a waste management facility and an independent laboratory in Abidjan. However, this is not enough. The people of Abidjan need urgent assistance. After two years, they continue to live in precarious conditions and their right to a healthy and safe environment continues to be violated.
Another issue of great concern to me is the issue of compensation. I acknowledge that the Government has attempted to take steps in the registration of victims, those that registered at the health centres received free medical treatment during the wake of the crisis. However, there is much more that needs to be done. Throughout my meetings with various stakeholders, the complaints seem to be very similar. Some complain of not being able to get registered to receive compensation, others claim to be compensated, although not adequately, while others have still not received any compensation whatsoever. Many victims, apart from feeling the direct threat to their health, have also had to leave their homes and businesses. Some have returned to their homes and businesses and continue to live and work next to these toxic waste dumps. They do not have the means to relocate or rebuild their businesses elsewhere. The Government needs to do more for its people. These victims have a right to receive adequate compensation for the suffering they have had to endure. I understand that the Government has informed residents that the compensation process is still going on. I appeal to the Government to mobilise all available resources and ensure that the victims receive adequate compensation more quickly.
The Ministry of Health should be provided with more financial resources and medicine in order to carry out appropriate follow-up for the victims and to monitor the toxic waste dumps. According to information I have received, free medical treatment was provided at the beginning of the crisis. However, I have been in contact with many victims who continue to display serious symptoms as a result of being exposed to the waste. I would like to call upon the Ministry of Health to carry out a health survey for the populations of the affected areas and to provide medical assistance to the victims urgently. Others should continue to do the same. Some of the victims I met are the most vulnerable, without enough money to eat, let alone pay for expensive medical bills. The Government needs to take more action to protect the right to health of these affected victims. The Ministry of Health should urgently establish intensive care units in major hospitals to treat new manifestations of illnesses related to toxic waste.
I would like to inform you that I will also be undertaking a mission to the Kingdom of Netherlands before the end of this year. As you know, the Probo Koala began its journey from Amsterdam. My mission there will include speaking with various stakeholders including the company concerned, Trafigura. I hope to be able to get a more comprehensive view of what happened and ascertain responsibility.
Lastly, the Government of Cote d’Ivoire should intensify the pursuit of pending criminal proceedings against individuals and corporate bodies implicated in this disaster. This is to send a signal to other transnational corporations and individuals that such crimes will not go unpunished and that Africa is not a cheap dumping ground. The victims must get the justice they deserve.
Mr. Okechukwu Ibeanu is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria.
For more information on the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights, please refer to: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/environment/waste/index.htm