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The hazard of toxic wastes on human rights

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the adverse effect of toxic wastes on human rights, Okechukwu Ibeanu every year some 47,000 people die as a result of acute poisoning from hazardous chemicals, while many others develop life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Okechukwu Ibeanu, UN expert on the adverse effects of toxic wastes © OHCHR Photo/Stefano SensiIn modern societies, harmful chemicals have become part of people’s lives and a constant threat to their health and the environment. However, the threat to human rights of hazardous products such as chemicals, pesticides and toxic waste remains to be adequately recognized.

At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a group of experts held a panel discussion which aimed to identify practical measures to reduce and eradicate the negative impact of the movement and dumping of toxic products on human rights.

Recalling what happened in his country in August 19 2006, the President of the Ivorian League for Human Rights, André Banhouman Kamate said that 528 cubic metres of toxic waste were discharged by the “Probo Koala” ship in the port of Abidjan, directly killing an estimated 17 people and aggravating to lethal levels the pre-existing health conditions of scores of others.

Kamate advocated for better controls of transnational traffic and new structures to treat dangerous products locally in order to mitigate the noxiousness of such wastes and to promote the rights to life, to the best obtainable health possible and to a safe environment.

In a written statement, UN Special Rapporteur Ibeanu noted that since the 1970s, the increased generation of toxic wastes had made people more aware of the potential dangers to their health and the environment. This prompted the introduction of new laws in industrialised countries where the cost of disposing of toxic wastes increased. Companies producing toxic wastes opted to dispose of them for less in developing countries.

“Today, the situation is more complex. Certainly, hazardous wastes generated in the northern hemisphere continue to be illegally dumped in developing countries by unscrupulous companies, as the Probo Koala case proved”, the statement indicated. “However, we need to acknowledge that toxic and dangerous products and wastes know no boundaries, and are transferred not only from the “north” to the “south”, but also – and increasingly – between developing countries and between developed countries themselves.”

Treaties such as the Basel Convention, with its 172 signatories, provide a legal realm for the movement and disposal of toxic materials worldwide. Although the Convention’s main goal is to protect human health and the environment, the treaty can also be applied to the protection of human rights. The Convention has put in place a prior and informed consent system aimed at ensuring that only countries with the will and capacity to dispose of, in an environmentally sound manner, hazardous wastes originating from another country actually receive such wastes. Illegal transport is a crime according to the Convention, however it still remains uncontrolled.

In the course of the discussion, experts called for concerted international action to address the effects of toxic and other wastes, as well as concrete measures to put an end to their transfer. They also advocated for the development of general guidelines on the management and disposal of toxic waste from a human rights perspective. Reparations for victims of dumping should also be envisaged.

30 June 2010