A Toxic Threat to Human Rights

By Alyssa Alfonso
By Alyssa Alfonso

This week, on the tenth anniversary of the illegal dumping toxic waste by the Probo Koala cargo ship in Cote d’Ivoire, United Nations human rights experts call on the Ivorian, Dutch and UK Governments and Tragifura, the multinational commodity trading company, to address the ongoing human rights impacts of the “Probo Koala incident.”

The Probo Koala ship, which dumped some 500 tons of toxic wastes in at least 18 sites, avoided the costly proper disposal of wastes in the Netherlands, and ten years on, more than 100,000 people have sought medical treatment and remain in the dark about the toxic cocktail to which they continue to be exposed.

The Probo Koala incident, an emblematic case of corporate wrongdoing, is only part of a much larger crisis. Today, pollution is estimated to be the largest cause of death in the developing world. WHO estimates that over 6 million people die annually due to air pollution alone. An ILO report found nearly 2 million workers die from exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace per year.

The Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (known as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics), Baskut Tuncak gave an hour-long presentation at CIEL in July. He detailed how toxic chemicals adversely impact human rights.

With each disaster he detailed, the questions seemed to multiply and loom larger: What will it take for this to change? Why have we not learned from our mistakes? Are any of these issues being addressed effectively?

1Toxins infiltrate our food, water, homes, and bodies unseen, and it’s often not until years later that the damage is revealed. And yet, even when the dangers of toxins to human health are clearly linked, it is still not enough to stop their production, use, and hazardous disposal. For example, despite the fact that lead and asbestos are unquestionably hazardous to human health, nations continue to allow the use and export of both substances. In fact, only one-tenth of 1% of chemicals is regulated at the global level throughout their lifecycle.

Even as the mandate urges governments to promptly recognize the gravity of toxic threats and protect its citizens in the face of gross injustices, the path to an effective remedy is slow and unachievable for many. In case after case, governments only cautiously step in after toxic disasters, and have yet to fully commit to preemptively protecting human rights from toxic chemicals.

In his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in September, the Special Rapporteur will focus specifically on the rights of the child in the context of toxics. This includes highlighting children’s unique vulnerability when it comes to toxic chemicals; that children cannot avoid the hundreds toxins they are exposed to in the womb, that exposure at a child’s critical stages of development can have devastating consequences later in life, and that latency periods between exposure and visible impact make achieving an effective remedy difficult. CIEL enthusiastically stands with the Special Rapporteur and the mandate working to clearly and comprehensively alert the public on the dangers of hazardous substances on human rights.