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UN experts launch urgent call for action on anniversary of devastating Brazil dam collapse

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Brazilian mine disaster, one year on – Saturday 5 November

GENEVA (4 November 2016) – A group of United Nations human rights experts has called for immediate action to address the ongoing impacts of the deadly collapse of a mining dam in Brazil on 5 November 2015.

In a statement to mark the first anniversary of the disaster at the Fundão tailing dam, the experts highlight unresolved issues including access to safe drinking water, river pollution, the uncertain fate of communities forced from their homes, and the insufficient response from the Government and companies concerned.

“On the eve of the first anniversary of the catastrophic collapse of the dam owned by Samarco, we urge the Brazilian Government and the companies involved to immediately address the numerous ongoing human rights impacts of this disaster.

The measures they are currently developing are simply insufficient to deal with the massive extent of the environmental and human costs of this collapse, which has been described as the worst socio-environmental disaster in the country’s history.

A year on, many of the six million people affected continue to suffer. We believe their human rights are not being addressed in areas including impacts on indigenous and traditional communities, health problems in riverside settlements, the risk of further contamination of waterways which have not yet recovered from the initial disaster, the slow pace of resettlement and legal redress for all displaced persons, and reports that human rights defenders are facing legal action.

We remind the Government and companies that a disaster on this scale – which released the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of tailings waste – requires a response on a similar scale.
 
We call on the Brazilian State to provide conclusive evidence that the river water and all sources of water currently being consumed by the population are safe and meet applicable legal standards. We are concerned by reports suggesting that some of the 700km of affected waterways, mainly the vital River Doce, are still contaminated by the initial disaster. Notably, levels of some heavy metals and water turbidity are said to be in breach of minimum standards.

This is particularly urgent in the light of reports that communities affected by the disaster have suffered adverse health effects.  We fear this impact is being suffered by riverside communities not just as a result of the contaminated water itself, but also as a result of dust produced from dry mud.

We also note the conclusions of the Brazilian environmental agency, IBAMA, that efforts by the companies concerned – Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton – have been insufficient to stop the continuing leakage of mud from the Fundão tailing dam site in the State of Minas Gerais. We fear that more waste will reach the downstream region once the rainy season begins in the next few weeks.
 
As well as seeking urgent clarification on water quality and health, we are also concerned about the fate of communities who were forced from their homes by the disaster. One year on, the resettlement of these communities is far from complete. Restitution and resettlement measures should be taken that include the relocation of displaced indigenous peoples and local communities to lands, territories and resources which are equal in quality, size and legal status to the lands from which they were uprooted as a result of the disaster.

We believe the Brazilian Government and the companies concerned must speed up the resettlement process and ensure this work matches international human rights standards. Special attention should be given to the rights of these communities to ongoing improvement of their living conditions and to respect for their cultural values.

We previously welcomed the suspension of the settlement agreement by the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice, owing to concerns over its provisions.  However, we note that the issue is still pending before lower federal courts. We restate our deep concern over the adverse effects that some provisions of this agreement could have on people’s right to access justice.
 
While conciliation and quick access to reparatory measures are welcome, the settlement agreement must not deprive the affected communities of full access to effective long-term remedies.

We urge the companies to refrain from taking any action that amounts to intimidation of the work of human rights defenders, and to ensure that measures to safeguard their property are proportional and do not conflict with people’s right to freedom of expression and right to access remedies.

We call on the Brazilian Government to step up its work to solve this legal deadlock, to avoid further damage to the human rights of the communities affected and to reach a full remediation scheme. This must include guarantees that a disaster like this can never happen again.

We acknowledge steps taken by the companies to engage with the public prosecution, public attorneys and community leaders to find common solutions and resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

These efforts must now be redoubled to ensure that all those affected, including the relatives of the 19 people who died in the initial disaster, have their human rights fully and speedily met.”

(*) The experts:

Mr. Dainius Pūras (Lithuania) is the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council on 1 August 2014. Mr. Pûras is a medical doctor, a Professor and Head of the Centre for Child psychiatry social paediatrics at Vilnius University. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/SRRightHealthIndex.aspx

Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. For more information, log on to:
http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. She was appointed by the Human Rights Council in June 2014. A member of the Kankana-ey, Igorot indigenous peoples in the Cordillera Region in the Philippines, she is a human rights activist whose work for more than three decades has been focused on movement building among indigenous peoples and also among women. To learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/SRIPeoplesIndex.aspx

The Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. Its current members are: Mr. Michael Addo (current vice chair), Mr. Surya Deva, Mr. Dante Pesce, Mr. Pavel Sulyandziga (current Chairperson), and Ms. Anita Ramasastry. Learn more, log on to: www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/WGHRandtransnationalcorporationsandotherbusiness.aspx"

Mr. Léo Heller (Brazil) is the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in November 2014. Mr. Heller is currently a researcher in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/WaterAndSanitation/SRWater/Pages/SRWaterIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups 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

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