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Brazilian mine disaster: “This is not the time for defensive posturing” – UN rights experts

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GENEVA (25 November 2015) – Two United Nations independent experts on environment and toxic waste today called on the Government of Brazil and relevant businesses to take immediate action to protect the environment and health of communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals in the wake of the catastrophic collapse of a tailing dam on 5 November 2015.

“This is not the time for defensive posturing,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the Special Rapporteur human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. “It is not acceptable that it has taken three weeks for information about the toxic risks of the mining disaster to surface.”

“The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient. The Government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals,” they stressed.

New evidence shows the collapse of a tailing dam belonging to a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton (Samarco Mining S.A.), which released 50 million tons of iron ore waste, contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in the river Doce. Hospitals in Mariana and Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais State have received several patients.

“The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers,” Mr. Knox warned.

The expert noted that the Doce River, one of Brazil’s great water sheds, “is now considered by scientists to be dead and the toxic sludge is slowly working its way downstream towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park where it threatens protected forest and habitat. Sadly the mud has already entered the sea at Regencia beach a sanctuary for endangered turtles and a rich source of nutrients that the local fishing community relies upon.”

“The Brazilian authorities should assess whether Brazil’s laws for mining are consistent with international human rights standards, including the right to information,” said Mr. Tuncak, who recently presented a special report* on the right to information in the context of hazardous substances to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Under international human rights standards, the State has an obligation to generate, assess, update and disseminate information about the impact to the environment and hazardous substances and waste, and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including conducting human rights due diligence,” the expert stressed.

The Special Rapporteurs stated that “this disaster serves as yet another tragic example of the failure of businesses to adequately conduct human rights due diligence to prevent human rights abuses.”

“There may never be an effective remedy for victims whose loved ones and livelihoods may now lie beneath the remains of tidal wave of toxic tailing waste, nor for the environment which has suffered irreparable harm,” they said. “Prevention of harm must be at the center of the approach of business whose activities involve hazardous substances and wastes.”

(*) Check the report on the right to information in the context of hazardous substances (A/HRC/30/40): ttp://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/ToxicWastes/Pages/Righttoinformation.aspx

Mr. John Knox (USA) was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 for a second term. The Council requested Mr. Knox, to convene a seminar on the effective implementation of human rights obligations relating to the environment, challenges thereto and the way forward. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Pages/SRenvironmentIndex.aspx

Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/ToxicWastes/Pages/SRToxicWastesIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Brazil: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/LACRegion/Pages/BRIndex.aspx

For enquiries and media requests, please contact Melinda Ching Simon (+41 22 917 9113 / mchingsimon@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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