People around the world are exposed to hundreds of toxic and otherwise hazardous substances linked to various forms of cancer, reproductive abnormalities, lung diseases, diabetes and learning disabilities, among other adverse health impacts. Arguably the most at risk are children. Pediatricians sadly describe a number of children as born pre-polluted, resulting in a "silent pandemic" of diseases, disabilities and pre-mature death around the world.
Our incessant exposure to toxic substances from a multitude of sources directly implicates our human rights to life, to the highest attainable standard of health, to physical integrity, to safe water and food, to adequate housing, and – in an increasing number of States – the right to a healthy environment. The rights of the child, people living in poverty, indigenous peoples, workers, migrants and minorities, as well as gender specific impacts, are frequently implicated by cases of exposure to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances. Indeed, a common denominator among many cases of human rights abuses involving business enterprises is the poisoning of communities, workers and consumers with toxic substances, whether from extractive industries, pesticide use in agriculture, industrial chemicals in manufacturing, emissions from power plants, factories, vehicles, and other sources—and of course the improper disposal of waste.
The exposure of people – not only those communities and workers on the frontlines of toxic industrial activities but the general public as well – to a myriad of harmful substances without their prior informed consent is a human rights issue. However, it is a human rights issue for which solutions exist. The mandate seeks to help States, businesses and other stakeholder adopt such solutions.
About the mandate
Dr. Marcos A. Orellana is the current Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes (i.e. toxics). The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council and undertakes the following main tasks:
- conducting research and analysis to be presented in separate thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly;
- undertaking country visits and reporting on the situation in those countries in relation to the concerns of the mandate;
- sending letters to governments, business enterprises and other relevant entities regarding the actual or potential exposure of people to hazardous substances and wastes, and other related implications, such as those related to the lack of information, participation and access to remedies.
The mandate on hazardous substances and wastes was first established in 1995 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (Commission Resolution 1995/81), and today is under U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution
36/15 of 2017 ( Earlier Resolutions). It is one of a number of mandates that together form what is known as the United Nations system of Special Procedures (More information on Special Procedures).
Hazardous substances from human activity affect multiple areas of human’s everyday living as they are often found in food that people eat, in the air that they breathe, in the water they drink and the places they work and call home. Hundreds of children are found to have hundreds of toxic chemicals in their bodies even before they are born, and scientists have linked higher levels of certain cancers and other adverse health impacts to increased production, use and consumption of toxic chemicals in the past decades.
In 1995, the Commission on Human Rights established the mandate to examine the human rights implications of exposure to hazardous substances and toxic waste, including trends in illicit traffic, release of toxic and dangerous products during conflict, shipbreaking, medical waste, extractive industries and other various issues. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that hazardous substances and waste may constitute a serious threat to the full enjoyment of human rights and expanded the mandate to include n the whole life-cycle of hazardous products from manufacturing to final disposal (cradle-to-grave approach). The rapid acceleration in chemical production suggests the likelihood that this is an increasing threat, particularly for the human rights of the most vulnerable segments of society.
Priorities of the mandate
- Childhood exposure to pollution and the rights of the child
- The rights of workers and occupational exposure to toxic substances
- The responsibilities of business enterprises
- The right to information and the right of access to remedies
- The rights of indigenous peoples
Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes
The Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes is mandated by the UN to examine the human rights implications of toxic and otherwise hazardous substances. the scope of the mandate includes: extractive industries, particularly oil, gas and mining; labour conditions in manufacturing and agricultural sectors; consumer products; environmental emissions of hazardous substances from all sources; military activities, war and conflict; and the disposal of waste. The expert is required by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back to member States on initiatives taken to promote and protect the human rights implicated by the improper management of hazardous substances and wastes.
In the fulfilment of the mandate, the Special Rapporteur:
annual reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly;
- Responds to information received concerning exposure to toxic and otherwise hazardous substances and wastes;
- Develops constructive dialogue with Governments, international organizations, civil society and other relevant actors with a view to identify successes and challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights within the context of the question of toxics and other hazardous substances
- Make practical recommendations to States and other concerned stakeholders on how to ensure that human rights are respected in regard to toxics and other hazardous substances
- Assesses whether and how relevant States’ policies, law, rules and regulations comply with international human rights standards and obligations;