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Brexit puts UK at risk of worsening pollution and lower environmental standards, UN rights expert warns

GENEVA (14 September 2017) – The UK risks sliding into worsening air pollution and looser environmental standards after Brexit, potentially becoming a haven for “dirty” industries and a dumping ground for products failing to meet EU regulations, a United Nations Special Rapporteur has warned.

Baskut Tuncak, whose mandate focuses on hazardous substances and wastes, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the EU had some of the highest environmental standards in the world and he feared these would not be maintained.

“The UK Government’s decision to trigger Article 50 without clarifying the technical details of the transposition of EU law may pose a real danger the country will be left without a clear framework to ensure similar levels of protection to those currently provided by the EU,” he said, presenting a report on the overall situation in the UK.

“The Government has conveyed to me that it is confident it can address these issues, but there are concerns it has under-estimated the extra burden on environmental regulators trying to replace the role of various EU bodies.”

“Brexit poses a risk of potential regression from human rights standards, which is at odds with the UK’s international obligations,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“The lack of clear guarantees, in particular to keep up with presumably strengthening EU standards of health and environmental protection over the coming years, and ministerial statements that existing laws would be maintained ‘wherever practical and desirable’, are worrying.”

Air pollution and industry regulation also posed significant challenges post-Brexit, the Special Rapporteur noted.

“Should the Government fail to equal the EU on air quality controls, chemical restrictions or product manufacturing standards, the UK market could risk becoming a haven for ‘dirty’ industries and a dumping ground for products failing to meet EU regulations,” said Mr. Tuncak.

EU membership had “undoubtedly” strengthened human rights protection in the UK, he said. For example, the UK had significantly lowered sulphur dioxide emissions, previously the highest in the EU, and improved waste disposal and sewage treatment practices.

Mr. Tuncak said his visit to the UK in January 2017 had found that people who needed the most protection were often breathing in dangerous levels of toxic pollution.

“Air pollution continues to inflict grave harms on the rights of children, women, older persons and people with disabilities, with limited accountability for perpetrators globally,” he said. Among the poor and minorities, the risk is often magnified, he added.

The UK Government should urgently develop and implement measures to reduce toxic emissions and improve air quality, the Special Rapporteur said.

“The new 2017 Air Quality Plan fails to bring the necessary urgency and concrete commitment to improve air quality and reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants as quickly as possible,” he noted. “The UK has an obligation to protect its population from exposure to health hazards, including air pollution, and to ensure effective remedies when violations occur.”

Mr. Tuncak also unveiled new guidelines to help all States and businesses prevent and redress the adverse impacts on human rights of hazardous substances and waste, including pollution.  


Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) was appointed as 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. As Special Rapporteur, he is 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.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr.  Alessandro Marra (+41 22 917 9882 / amarra@ohchr.org) or write to srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org

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