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Sierra Leone: UN human rights expert sounds alarm on hidden suffering from toxic pollution

A hidden tragedy

25 August 2017

FREETOWN / GENEVA (25 August 2017) – People in Sierra Leone are suffering daily exposure to toxic waste and the Government needs to step up its response, a United Nations human rights expert has warned.

“Many cost-effective measures are yet to be taken,” said Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak, ending an official visit to assess the situation, and acknowledging the steps made towards establishing stronger protections since the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, one the poorest countries in the world.

“I observed severe impacts on human rights from hazardous substances and waste,” he said. “I witnessed communities in and around Freetown’s largest waste dump - including children and pregnant women - breathing the dark haze of air pollution, drinking, bathing, and cleaning in toxic water, and eating meat contaminated by waste.”

Mr. Tuncak added: “Despite the visible evidence, the magnitude of the impacts of hazardous substances and waste on human rights in Sierra Leone remains largely unknown.”

“Of serious concern is the lack of reliable data on emissions to air, water and soil of pollutants,” he stressed. “It is essential that the Government undertake robust monitoring of water and food contamination, air pollution, labour conditions and key health indicators to map priority areas for intervention.”  

Mining and agriculture needed particular attention, he said, and the Government should also ensure that municipal waste, air pollution and chemicals were being properly dealt with.

Mr. Tuncak praised Government efforts to improve Sierra Leone’s prosperity but warned that increased economic activity would also raise the levels of toxic pollution.

The Special Rapporteur said people were unaware of the contamination levels of air, water and food, and the health risks including cancer, respiratory diseases, birth defects and reduced cognition.

“More needs to be done to ensure people’s right to information, to raise awareness among the public and to ensure meaningful consultation and participation of communities in environmental decision-making,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“Of serious concern is what appears to be a general inability of affected individuals and communities to access justice to defend their rights and seek redress.”

He said the Government should speed up the adoption of critical new laws and policies on labour, pesticides and industrial chemicals which had been drafted but had not progressed.

“The Government must strengthen the implementation and enforcement of existing laws, while also closing legislative gaps, establishing missing emissions standards, and developing laws and policies in areas where they are vague or absent,” he noted.

He urged the authorities to take a number of key steps including increasing transparency over the negotiation of contracts with industry, making fresh efforts to raise awareness about the impact of toxic waste, acknowledging of the role of civil society and increasing international cooperation.

Mr. Tuncak also offered his deep condolences to all those bereaved, injured or affected by the deadly mudslide in the capital, Freetown, which happened during his official visit. 

The mission, from 14 to 25 August, was the Special Rapporteur’s first official visit to the country. He will present a comprehensive report with his findings and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2018.

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.

UN Human Rights, Country Page: Sierra Leone

For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Sierra Leone (during the visit): (Alessandro Marra / +41 79 444 4332)
In Geneva (before and after the visit): Alessandro Marra (+41 22 917 9882 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

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