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Opening Remarks, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak 74th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Third Committee

24 October 2019, New York

Excellences, distinguished delegates, colleagues, friends,

Nearly sixty years ago, Rachel Carson warned in her landmark book Silent Spring, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals — eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones — we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

Under the shadow of the existential threats of climate change and biodiversity collapse lies another, insidious extinction crisis: the toxification of our planet and our bodies.  The invisible proliferation of toxic substances poses a global threat to individuals, communities, and human rights.

The existential nature of our own toxification cannot be over-emphasized.  In addition to rising rates of cancer, diabetes, asthma, and other debilitating and deadly conditions, evidence illustrates the grave threat of our incessant exposure to toxic substances to fertility and healthy reproduction.   

For example, sperm counts have declined a staggering 50 percent since the 1970s in many countries around the world according to a recent, comprehensive study.  This study reaffirmed similar trends documented back in the 1990s following periods of industrialization and increased exposure to toxic substances.  Scientists of the recent study note that there is no indication that this decline in sperm quantity and quality are levelling off.  Studies are consistently clear in that this decline in sperm count is linked to our incessant exposure to a multitude of toxic substances, particularly of children during sensitive periods of development.  These scientists who are quietly sounding the alarm, urgently call for prevention of exposure to toxics.

Mr. President:

States have a duty to prevent exposure.  Every State has multiple binding human rights obligations that create a duty to take active measures to prevent the exposure of individuals and communities to toxic substances. 

In the report I have the honor of presenting to you today, I remind States of their duty under international human rights law to prevent exposure to toxic substances.  No State will meet their obligations to protect, respect and fulfill human rights without taking greater measures to prevent exposure.

This obligation derives implicitly, but clearly, from any number of our human rights, including life, dignity, health, safe food and water, adequate housing, and safe and healthy working conditions, as well as a healthy environment.   Under-recognized but highly relevant to these rights implicated by toxic exposures is bodily integrity, and our right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.   

Since Rachel Carson’s warning about the risks of toxic substances in 1962, States have taken positive steps towards preventing exposures to hazardous substances and wastes.  A few efforts are truly admirable, such as Sweden’s national policy for a non-toxic environment.

Nonetheless, today, prevention is the exception, not the norm.  People and peoples are knowingly exposed to a multitude of hazardous substances that could be prevented.  Legally poisoned.  Personal autonomy over what enters our bodies has steadily eroded over decades of industrialization and chemical intensification, to such an extent that few people have information about their actual exposures, let alone the power to prevent it. 

In my report, I outline shortcomings by States to prevent exposure to various toxic threats, such as a consumer product that killed over one thousand babies, young women and older persons in one country and injured hundreds of thousands; air pollution that kills more than the 7 million estimated by WHO; plastics and wastes, including microplastics that we are exposed to without any information of their properties; and so-called “forever chemicals” that will harm reproduction for centuries; as well as poisonous pesticides and heavy metals. 

This toxic cocktail of pollution is conservatively calculated as the single largest source of premature death in the world, causing and contributing to a silent pandemic of diseases and disabilities.  Children are born pre-polluted, denied their right to the highest attainable standard of health.  Remedy is unattainable by design for the vast majority of victims, enabling perpetrators to regularly evade accountability and expose with impunity.

The magnitude and impact of a rapidly toxifying world continues to grow faster than measures to prevent exposure. The economic costs of this exposure on individuals and public resources is staggering, in the trillions of US dollars globally, that could be dramatically reduced through prevention policies.  Meanwhile, States remain locked in years- or decades-long debates over when and to what extent exposures are acceptable.  All the while, a multitude of toxic exposures continue to erode, abuse, and violate our bodily integrity, our human rights to life and health, among many others.

States are not only failing to prevent exposure; they are also failing to acknowledge and investigate the potentially catastrophic impacts of their inaction on people both within and outside their jurisdictions.  And, instead of accelerating efforts to atone for decades of inaction, today far too many States are taking regressive steps regarding well-established threats to life, health and bodily integrity, going in precisely the wrong direction at a moment when increased, not diminished, ambition is critically needed.

Mr. President,

It must be emphasized that the primary duty to prevent human rights violations rests with States, irrespective of the increasing recognition of the responsibilities of business enterprises and other non-State actors. 

However, independent of State efforts, and particularly where the State is unable or unwilling to exercise its duty, non-State actors have a responsibility to prevent exposure to toxics. 

The United Nations is no exception.  Between 1999 and 2013, the UN housed approximately 600 members of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families, displaced during the Kosovo1 conflict, in camps constructed on toxic wasteland.  The land was well-known since the 1970s to be contaminated with lead and other poisons.  While the UN moved quickly to relocate French peacekeeping troops away from the highly contaminated site three months after discovering cases of lead poisoning among troops stationed near the camp, the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families remained housed on this toxic wasteland for 14 years. Half of those housed in the toxic camp were children, who suffered irreparable injuries to their mental and physical health. 

The integrity of the U.N. system is undermined by its failure to provide relief and remedy to these Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families whose rights were violated in Kosovo.  To this day, the victims have not received an effective remedy, despite the recommendations of a UN Human Rights Advisory Panel on the mater.  In 2017 a trust-fund was finally established to help provide an effective remedy; and yet, only one Member State has contributed, and at a level insufficient to provide effective remedy for any of the children poisoned.  Every one of these victims has been “left behind”.  The complete failure of all but one U.N. Member State to contribute to the trust fund is truly appalling -- yet unsurprising, as this is a common response experienced by many, many marginalized communities around the world who bear the brunt of their Government’s inaction to prevent exposure and are denied a remedy.

Mr. President,

Despite an overwhelming recognition by States under national and regional laws that a “healthy” environment is a human right, today it is treated as a privilege.  And, despite global recognition of the right to safe and healthy work for nearly 55 years, this too is treated as a privilege, not a universal human right.  Few States have had the courage to acknowledge and implement their duty to prevent exposure at the level required to realize a truly healthy environment and safe workplace for all, particularly those living in poverty, marginalized or otherwise vulnerable.

Simply affixing the prefix “safe” or “healthy” or “clean” or “adequate” will not realize the human rights to water, food, air, housing, or an environment and workplace consistent with the dignity of each and every person, unless prevention of exposure to hazardous substances is the norm, rather than the exception.  Over time, many toxic substances have been found to have no safe level of exposure, and many more will undoubtedly follow in the future. 

In my report, I conclude with several recommendations to States and business.  First and foremost, States must elevate considerably the priority afforded to exposure prevention.  Many human rights will be a false promise and never truly realized without States accepting their duty to prevent exposure and urgently making exposure prevention a priority. 

Thank you, Mr. President.


1/ Any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, is to be understood in full compliance with Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.