Skip to main content

Countdown to Human Rights Day

UN Voluntary Fund helps those on the road to recovery from slavery

Learn more

Press releases Special Procedures

UN experts: technical team must be allowed to avert oil spill disaster threatening Yemen

12 November 2020

GENEVA (12 November 2020) – Independent technical experts must be granted immediate access to an abandoned, rusting oil tanker that threatens Yemen and the Red Sea with ecological catastrophe, UN human rights experts said today.

“It is vital that a UN technical team be permitted to board the FSO Safer if we are to have any hope of preventing the threat of a spill that could be four times worse than the historic Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989,” said Marcos Orellana, UN special rapporteur on toxics and human rights.

The single-hull super tanker, launched in 1976, lies off Yemen’s key port ofHudaydah, now controlled by the Houthis, and is rapidly decaying after being abandoned five years ago when its engine room flooded with seawater. Since the late 1980s, it had been used as a storage vessel and now holds some 1.1 million barrels of oil, four times the spill from the Exxon Valdez.

“If this ship were to break up, a spill could decimate livelihoods of local coastal communities, biodiversity in the region, and heavily impact shipping routes in the Red Sea,” said Orellana. “A UN technical team should be given all necessary means to assess the dilapidated tanker and conclusively avert the threat of a spill from the dilapidated tanker.”

“An oil spill would harm the rights to life, health and a healthy environment for some 1.6 million Yemenis,” said David Boyd, special rapporteur for human rights and environment. “The catastrophic risks of an oil spill from the FSO Safer add to the urgency of rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels and towards renewables,” he added.

“Has the world learned nothing from the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut in Lebanon in August?” asked Orellana. “Surely the dangers of mishandling hazardous substances are now evident.”

In March 2018, the Government of Yemen and de facto (Houthi) authorities formally requested UN assistance with the Safer tanker, but more than two years on, the team has not been deployed because the necessary approvals have not yet been granted.”

“This is a tragedy in the making and it must be prevented at all costs from hitting the people of Yemen,” the experts said. “They have suffered enough.”


Marcos A. Orellana, the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, was appointed by the Human Rights Council as of July 2020. Dr. Marcos A. Orellana is an expert in international law and the law on human rights and the environment. His practice as legal advisor has included work with United Nations agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations, including on wastes and chemicals issues at the Basel and Minamata conventions, the UN Environment Assembly and the Human Rights Council. He has intervened in cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body. His practice in the climate space includes representing the eight-nations Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and serving as senior legal advisor to the Presidency of the 25th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Professor Orellana has extensive experience working with civil society around the world on issues concerning global environmental justice. He was the inaugural director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Previously he directed the trade and the human rights programs at the Center for International Environmental Law, and he co-chaired the UN Environment Program's civil society forum. Professor Orellana teaches International Environmental Law at the George Washington University School of Law and International Law at the American University Washington College of Law. Previously he has lectured in prominent universities around the world, including Melbourne, Pretoria, Geneva, and Guadalajara. He was a fellow at the University of Cambridge, visiting scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC, and instructor professor of international law at the Universidad de Talca, Chile.

David R. Boydthe Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, was appointed for a three-year term commencing August 1, 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His career has included serving as the executive director of Ecojustice, appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada, and working as a special advisor on sustainability for Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. Dr Boyd has advised many governments on environmental, constitutional, and human rights policy and co-chaired Vancouver's effort to become the world's greenest city by 2020. He is a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law, an expert advisor for the UN's Harmony with Nature Initiative, and a member of ELAW, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.

Special Rapporteurs are 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 Ms. Sara Cavallo ([email protected]) or write to [email protected][email protected]

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]) and Kitty McKinsey ([email protected])

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.