“The Silent Pandemic” – UN human rights body discusses hazardous substances and wastes

The 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, recently considered the latest report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, which this year focuses especially on children’s rights.

On 15 September 2016, on the occasion of the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council, the latest Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Mr. Baskut Tuncak, was presented and discussed in Geneva, Switzerland. (See A/HRC/33/41).

The Report is the result of a broad consultative process with States, international organizations, civil society, national human rights institutions, and other stakeholders.

This year, the Report focuses particularly on children’s rights with respect to hazardous chemicals and wastes since, it comments, there is now what doctors refer to as a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability affecting millions during childhood and later in life. According to the Report, childhood exposure is a systemic problem everywhere, and not just limited to poisoning, as all around the world, children are born with sometimes huge quantities of hazardous substances in their bodies; pediatricians have now begun referring to some children as being born “pre-polluted.”  The World Health Organization estimated that over 1.5 million children under five died prematurely from toxics, pollution and other exposures; also, numerous health impacts are linked to childhood exposure to toxics, such as cancer, developmental disorders, learning disabilities and respiratory illnesses. 

The Report further states that, to remedy the situation:

  • Prevention of exposure is the best remedy.
  • The best interests of the child must be a primary consideration of States in protecting children’s rights. Which rights?
    • the right to life, to survival and development,
    • the right to physical and mental integrity,
    • the right to health,
    • the right to a healthy environment,
    • the right to be free from the worst forms of child labour,
    • the right to an adequate standard of leaving, including safe food, water and housing,
    • the right to non-discrimination, and
    • other rights implicated by toxics and pollution embodied in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • States have an obligation and businesses have a corresponding responsibility to prevent childhood exposure to toxic chemicals and pollution.

Finally, the Report ended on the Special Rapporteur offering recommendations to the various stakeholders to protect the rights of the child from toxic chemicals.

The presentation was followed by quite a few interventions by States, IGOs such as UNICEF, and NGOs: accountability and responsibility by businesses were often put forward. In his response further to the interventions, the Special Rapporteur stated that UNEP's chemicals work was largely driven by the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions as well as the – yet to enter into force - Minamata Convention, which together cover only 26 hazardous substances throughout their lifecycle, out of the thousands out there that would need regulation, and that this was a big gap. He further noted that SAICM, which he called an ambitious and broad mandate, has regrettably received insufficient financial resources. He also referred to the notable absence of compliance mechanisms under some of the previously mentioned Conventions. He also expressed his hope that Ministries of Health would be more involved in the topic of hazardous substances, and noted relative underfunding of the WHO Environment and Health Programme.

For more information on the above, consult:

Click here to read the entire report, in the 6 official UN languages.