13 October 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 Denmark and Greenland, at the invitation of the Government, from 2-13 October 2017. The purpose of the mission was to monitor and assess steps taken by the Governments of 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 of 2018.
I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Governments of Denmark and Greenland for the invitation to visit the country and its exemplary cooperation. I also warmly thank all representatives of civil society and business sector who took their time to meet me and share their views and experiences.
In Copenhagen, I have had the honor to meet with representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Environment and Food, Health and from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). I also met with representatives from the Danish Institute for Human Rights. From the business community I met with representatives from the Danish Industry Federation, the Danish Shipping and from Maersk. I also met with representatives from the European Environment Agency and multiple civil society representatives working on human rights and environmental issues.
In Nuuk, I was honored to met with representatives from the Ministries of Independence, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture; Mineral Resources; Industry, Labor Trade and Energy; Nature and Environment; Health and the Environmental Agency for Mineral Resource Activities. I also to met with Greenlandic Parliamentarians seating at the Environment and Foreign Affairs Committees at the Inatsisartut. Finally, I met with the National Human Rights Council and a number of civil society representatives.
Denmark has developed many good practices with regard to the protection of groups at high risk of human rights violations and abuses from hazardous substances. Although not framed as such, these efforts speak to the exceptional efforts by the Government to elevate human rights protections at home and abroad from numerous toxic threats.
Protecting the rights of the child
Few if any countries have done more to protect the rights of the child from hazardous substances and to exercise their duty to prevent exposure by children and women of reproductive age. For decades, Denmark has applied the principles of prevention and precaution to protect child rights from toxic threats, often leading to improved standards of protection both in Denmark and abroad.
Chemicals that can interfere with the development of children, including those known as endocrine (or hormone) disrupting chemicals (EDCs), have been major focus of EPAs work. EDCs present a risk to the rights of the child to life, health, and maximum development, among others. Danish leadership has strengthened protections from phthalates, BPA, parabens and PCBs. Stronger measures are anticipated on four of several toxic phthalates following years of negotiation within the EU.
Improving scientific knowledge of the combined effect of daily exposure of young children to a mixture of chemicals has also been a feature of EPA’s efforts. Denmark has conducted considerable research in the past decade on the risks of exposure to multiple chemicals, with groundbreaking research illustrating the deficiency of individual risk assessment models for certain toxic substances in real-world conditions. Denmark led efforts in 2012 to develop a EU action plan on mixtures; however, since then progress has slowed dramatically.
The Danish Government has recognized the necessity for international cooperation on the threats, with examples of successful efforts at the regional and global levels. Globally, Denmark has played a leading role in elevating issues to international fora. However, the inability of the European Union to adopt strong criteria for EDCs was noted with a disappointment by the Government and civil society organizations.
Recognizing the direct connection between protecting the right of workers to health and the health of their children, Denmark undertook a groundbreaking study on workers in greenhouses using pesticides over 15 years ago. The children of these pregnant women were clearly observed to have adverse effects. Subsequent follow up has illustrated new and ongoing adverse health impacts among children whose mothers used pesticides in greenhouses.
Stimulating economic growth alongside environmental protection
The Danish experience should serve to disabuse certain policy makers and businesses of the myth that environmental protection and economic grown are incompatible. For example, the evidence from Denmark shows that the agricultural sector can grow together with some of the world’s strictest limits on the use of pesticides, which is essential to protect the right to safe water. Taxes on pesticides were a key tool to incentivize reductions in pesticide use, without detrimental impacts on the sector.
The retailer COOP has successfully used its market power to remove toxic chemicals from certain products. Collaborative approaches with industry have yielded positive examples. For example, the multi-stakeholder “chemicals forum,” which brings together industry, civil society and EPA have successfully found areas of common understanding and concern, such as the “REACH” Regulation and measures that can be taken before forthcoming restrictions on substances of concern take effect.
Public awareness and the right to information
In spite of changes in political leadership in Denmark, toxic chemical pollution remains prominent in the political agenda for the time being. The consistent emphasis on toxic chemicals was attributed to the relatively high public awareness.
Information tools and campaigns by various actors have enabled public and consumer awareness. Campaigns by EPA have targeted risks to groups at elevated risk, such as pregnant women, young children and teenagers, including product categories such as toys, cosmetics, textiles, electronics and others. Homebuyers can view air pollution levels outside of homes, helping to creating incentives for good air quality.
The Danish Consumer Council’s smartphone application or “app” is enabling the right of consumers to access information about cosmetics, toys and other products, which is helping to democratize consumer choice and leverage the purchasing power of consumers toward commonly shared values. I was pleased to hear that the possible defunding of the Consumer Council’s chemicals work by the Government was averted by public outcry. Campaigns by the private sector also raised public awareness regarding the risks of pesticides, fluorinated compounds and other toxic chemicals.
Furthermore, the importance placed in Denmark on safe drinking water, a human right, has reinforced efforts to prevent pollution and groundwater contamination. Danes pride themselves on the quality of drinking water. The recent discovery of pesticide contamination in the ground water reinforced efforts to minimize pesticide use and the need for diligent monitoring of water contaminants.
Practices outside Denmark
While considerable progress has been made within Denmark, and within the EU in collaboration with Member States, there are double standards between what companies are allowed to do inside Denmark versus what they can do abroad. States have an extraterritorial obligation to protect in precisely such circumstances, where businesses in their jurisdiction cause, contribute to or are linked to human rights abuses outside their territories.
Denmark must extend its best-in-class protection of human rights from toxic threats at home to the operations of all its businesses abroad. France, for example, has taken steps in this direction. Two examples of the pressing need for increased action on the extraterritorial impacts of Danish businesses are discussed below.
There is no shortage of documentation about human rights abuses linked to the export of European ships for recycling. Mostly in South Asia, end-of-life ships—including those owned or operated by Danish companies during significant time periods of their lifespan—are run aground and dismantled in local communities in appallingly hazardous conditions (the so-called “beaching” practice). In addition to the physical hazards of essentially breaking apart these enormous ships by hand, large volumes of toxic chemicals are released into the air, water and soil during the dismantling process, poisoning both workers and the broader community. Some of these pollutants can eventually find their way back to Europe.
Regular and systematic human rights abuses by many of the world’s largest ship-owners due to the dismantling of end-of-life ships include the rights to life, health, to physical integrity, to safe food and water, to adequate housing, and to safe and healthy working conditions, among others. Child rights abuses are also grave, with abject failures regarding child labor and the poisoning of children in local communities through chronic exposure to contamination. This type of shipbreaking is discrimination in practice, where powerful actors are abusing the rights of the world’s weakest communities simply for profit.
New EU legislation still requires additional measures to ensure that loopholes are not exploited by the European shipping industry. For example, Danish shipping company Moller-Maersk (Maersk) had previously announced that beaching was unacceptable and would no longer be practiced. However, Maersk reversed its position regarding the practice of beaching ships in 2016. Thus, from 2016 through part of 2017, Maersk has reportedly sent five 300-meter length ships (roughly 59,000 tons each) to beaches in India. From 2010-2015, it had avoided disposing vessels in Indian beaches, unlike several of its competitors.
Recent independent media investigations on the dismantling of two of these Maersk ships on Indian beaches noted that workers were being exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective equipment and were at significant risk of fatal accidents. Maersk explains that their decision to allow beaching of ships was driven by a lack of capacity in the industry and point to efforts to improve conditions at three yards in Alang, India. However, environmental monitoring data is not available to evaluate conditions and at least 117 of 120 yards in Alang are unaddressed. Furthermore, it is clear from discussion with all stakeholders that the real reason for the return to beaching is that it is more profitable than using safer, cleaner facilities.
In August 2016, the “North Sea Producer” ship was beached in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The ship was owned by a UK-based joint venture by Maersk and the Brazil-based Odebrecht. Radioactive residues were found upon inspection and that further surveys were deemed necessary on the whole ship. Legal proceedings are ongoing in the exporting state, the UK, and the importing state, Bangladesh.
Reports from independent media pointed to appalling conditions in the dismantling of the North Sear Producer. Workers lacked even the most basic necessary protective equipment like shoes, helmets, and respirators to protect them from deadly accidents and toxic gasses.
Indeed, there is also a duty on States with these deadly shipbreaking yards to protect against such abuses, as well as States hosting companies that enable the swapping of a ship’s flag from an EU State to another to circumvent EU regulatory requirements. However, this does not absolve Denmark and other EU Member States of their obligation to protect from human rights abuses abroad by the European shipping industry.
Exports of pesticides and other hazardous substances
The problem of toxic exports is not simply one of end-of-life ships or other types of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. The problem of Danish and other European businesses abusing human rights abroad through the export of toxic threats extends to supply chain segments, dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals and polluting industries to developing countries.
For example, the continued practice of manufacturing hazardous pesticides for export despite EU bans or other prohibitions from use within the EU is deeply problematic, requiring strong justification as to why such practices are not discriminatory. The traceability of toxic threats to human rights is crucial but is unfortunately missing in most European supply and value chains with regard to the production, use, release and disposal of toxic chemicals.
For example, in 2017 Denmark sent 43 shipments of banned pesticides to various countries, the majority of which have weaker regulatory and enforcement systems than those found in the EU1. Denmark’s principal export of a substance banned by the EU in 2006 is a hazardous pesticide (malathion) classified as probably carcinogenic to humans2. Workers are noted as those at the greatest risk of harm3.
To conclude, the Danish experience illustrates a virtuous cycle of information, empowerment, innovation and human rights protection. While progress has been made, the reality is that existing standards of protection from hazardous substances in Denmark and elsewhere remain far behind what scientific evidence shows is necessary to protect human rights, and what the private sector is capable of delivering. The export of practices and products prohibited by some Danish companies operating in countries with far weaker standards of protection, simply for economic gain, is disappointing and raises a number of human rights concerns. Denmark must extend its best in class protections from toxic threats at home to operations of all its businesses activities abroad. I thank all who took the time to speak and meet with me during the past two weeks, and look forward to hearing about the continued leadership of Denmark, at home and abroad.
Over recent years, Greenland has acquired increased autonomy in the management of its territory and public affairs. The sound management of hazardous substances and wastes is an important topic in Greenland’s public debate given the special concerns that exist regarding military activity in the island and the prospects for increased presence of extractive industries.
Greenland’s challenging environment
Greenland’s environment poses particular challenges for the management of waste. Human presence in this vast island is distributed in small settlements interconnected only by boat or air. Local authorities in Ilulissat and Nuuk presented their waste management strategies, recognizing the need to tackle backlog from previous years and the need to modernize past practices. Authorities both at local level as well as in Nuuk are fully aware of the need to ensure good coordination between development strategies and infra structure requirements.
Climate Change and Health
The Artic environment is vulnerable to pollution coming abroad, accumulating in traditional aquatic foods and frozen in ice. Climate change is already affecting the communities living in the Artic region and re-mobilizing pollutants. Full environmental and health consequences are yet to be established, but the impacts of climate change are clearly visible. I am glad to note that Greenland authorities recognize their duty to inform local communities on the potential risks posed contaminated seafood. Cooperation with external partners in Denmark and beyond should also be beneficial to improve the understanding on the potential risks.
The impact of past and present military activities is a sensitive topic for the Greenlandic society. Since the cold war era, armed forces from the United States have established dozens of bases, leaving behind various categories of military wastes, including radioactive materials. Thule Airbase is the only active US military base today.
The special status of Greenland and its full reliance on the Danish authorities to handle matters relating to military and foreign affairs, particularly in the past, meant that the local population was fully excluded from decisions taken with regard to the presence of American military in Greenland. In 1951 Danish authorities unilaterally accepted the presence of American forces in Thule, removing a local community for the establishment of the existing American base.
Important concerns exist today with regard to the types and locations of wastes left behind. With climatic changes reducing ice in the arctic, waste that was buried deep under ice is expected to surface sometime this century, increasing risks. I also took note of the recently announced efforts by the Geological Surveys for Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) to map the potential risks of residual wastes.
I was pleased to hear about the announcement of the Government of Denmark last June 2017 that it would allocate 30 million Danish Krone per year in a period of six years to identify and cleanup of waste. I heard concerns in Greenland on the adequacy of the amount allocated if compared with other remediation efforts on the island. But I also understand the amount allocated can be increased if necessary. A serious concern from the point of view of the affected communities is the very limited transparency on the operations carried in Greenland. Tensions could be reduced with greater transparency.
Greenland places important hopes on the prospects of mining activity to develop its national economy beyond sectors such as fishery and tourism. Often, communities are divided between the expectation of greater economic opportunities and the serious risks posed by the wastes from mines.
In this regard, I was pleased to learn about the regulations and procedures adopted to ensure the licensing of these activities is framed by detailed assessments on their potential social and environmental impact which are made accessible to the public via the Government webpage. Online consultations appeared to be very accessible and authorities repeatedly noted the need to ensure prior and informed consent by those affected in mining projects.
Despite this positive staring point, the task of informing communities and organizing discussions around especially complex topics is inherently challenging. Attention should be given to the time offered for discussion (currently comments can be submitted within 45 days, but this deadline might be too difficult to meet considering complexities and challenges in mobilizing civil society in remote locations), challenges in translating technical concepts to Greenlandic language, and to the need to reach directly remote communities as the internet might not be the sufficient channel for them.
Particular concerns exists with regard to the prospects of opening a mine for rare earth elements, zinc and uranium in Kvanefjeld, near Narsaq, considering the proximity of this mine to local settlements and the use of some neighboring areas for sheep farms. However, the assessment process for this project is still underway.
I also took note of the concerns regarding the potential need to bring workers from overseas to implement some of these huge projects, considering the limited offer of workforce in Greenland. If large contingents of workers end having to come to Greenland in the future it will be crucial to ensure adequate oversight on their working conditions and support to ensure their good integration in local communities. Attention must be paid to ensure adequate monitoring of waste and tailings dumps in the future considering the limited capacity of oversight in place today.
I note that mining rates and prospects have diminished due to market conditions. Given the continued effects of climate change, and volatility of commodity markets, the Government should use this opportunity to improve information, policies and procedures.
Once again I thank all authorities and civil society representatives who contributed to this visit. I look forward continuing the dialogue we initiated over the last days and hope to further reflect on all the issued described today in my report to the Human Rights Council in 2018.
1. See Export Notifications, European Chemical Agency (last accessed 11 Oct. 2017).