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Environment and Human Rights Linked Before UN Commission

Published by MAC on 2003-04-11

Environment and Human Rights Linked Before UN Commission

Environmental News Service

April 11, 2003

Geneva, Switzerland - The case for linking human rights and environmental protection is receiving increased recognition as a prevailing legal norm, says a nonprofit environmental law organization based in the United States. The International Program of Earthjustice submitted its annual issue paper, "Human Rights and the Environment" on Thursday at the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR), composed of 53 nations, meets each year in regular session in March and April for six weeks in Geneva. This year it is taking place from March 17 to April 25 at the Palais des Nations. Over 3,000 delegates from member and observer countries and from nongovernmental organizations participate.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (Photo courtesy UNHCHR) "The relationship between environmental problems and human rights violations calls for a holistic treatment of these issues," Earthjustice said in its report. "International, governmental and nongovernmental institutions dedicated to protecting human rights must recognize the connection and take steps to provide mechanisms to address the human rights implications of environmental problems." Trends and themes in the field of human rights that are pressing enough to warrant the appointment of special rapporteurs include a Special Rapporteur on Adverse Effects of the Illicit Movement and Dumping of Toxic and Dangerous Products and Wastes on the Enjoyment of Human Rights. This special rapporteur, Fatma Zohra Ouhachi Vesely of Tunisia, presented her report to the Commission on Thursday.

Vesely highlights a new trend in the area within her mandate - the export of hazardous electronic waste from developed countries for recycling in developing countries in Asia. As documented by many reports received from different sources, she wrote, these wastes are processed in operations that are "extremely harmful to human health and the environment, with severe implications for human rights." Improper disposal of electronic waste that contains heavy metals and pollutants poses a threat to human health.

"The gravity of the problem points to the need for the strict application of existing international instruments and for the elaboration if necessary of international standards to ensure that electronic wastes are recycled in a manner that is neither harmful to worker, nor destroys the environment," Vesely said.

She cited a comprehensive report from the Basel Action Network, a Seattle based global network of toxics and development activist organizations, alleging that substantial amounts of hazardous electronic wastes are exported from the United States to Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan for recycling. The report alleges that improper disposal of electronic waste that contains heavy metals and pollutants poses a significant threat to human health, leading to respiratory illness, skin infections, stomach diseases and other conditions.

Computer or television monitors contain cathode ray tubes, which typically contain enough lead to be classified as hazardous waste when being recycled or disposed of. A typical computer monitor may contain up to eight pounds of lead. The report submits that such exports of electronic waste are contrary to the Basel Convention, to which the United States is not a party.

Representing the United States, Malik Hasan, a neurologist and former owner of HMOs, said that his country remains "concerned that in a number of instances, unverified allegations were reported and often treated as fact" in the Special Rapporteur's report.

Hasan told the delegates that the United States is currently making efforts to seek ratification of the Basel Convention.

He acknowledged that nongovernmental organizations consider that this would do more to legitimize international waste dumping than it would to prevent it. The United States "disagreed strongly with this characterization," and noted that by ratifying the treaty, the U.S. would gain in "the ability and responsibility to better regulate exports of hazardous waste."

It would not legitimize international waste dumping, he said.

The Basel Action Network report also alleges that hazardous electronic waste originating from Canada is being exported to Asia for recycling. One of the receiving countries, China, has banned the import of electronic waste, and the report alleges that Canada's refusal to honor that ban by furthering exports of electronic waste to China is in contravention of the Basel Convention.

During a visit to Canada in October 2002, Vesely said she had an opportunity to raise the issue of the Basel Action Network report directly with the government. The government spokesman informed the Special Rapporteur that Canada is meeting its international obligations in the field of hazardous wastes and that Environment Canada is reviewing its definition of hazardous waste, including electronic scrap, as part of ongoing amendments to the Export and Import of Hazardous Wastes Regulations.

Environment Canada has not issued any permit for the export of hazardous electronic scrap to any developing country, the spokesman said. Canada also prohibits the export of hazardous wastes to countries that have notified Environment Canada that they themselves prohibit imports of such waste. As of November 2002, China had not notified Environment Canada of any ban on the import of electronic waste. In view of the allegations of electronic waste export to China, Environment Canada has requested information from the Chinese authorities as to whether China has a prohibition on the import of electronic scrap.

During a question and answer session following the introduction of Vesely's report, a representative of Algeria said it was a good thing to transfer technology to the developing countries and to reduce flows of toxic waste and dangerous materials. The effort to fight such phenomena should include the adoption of national legislation which would prohibit the export and import of such materials, in accordance with the Basel Convention, he said. Vesely agreed that development of national legislation was necessary to fight against toxic waste, as mentioned by the Algerian delegation. In her report, Vesely noted her continuing concern about the problems posed by pesticides and persistent organic pollutants. She welcomed the decision of Mexico to ban the use of DDT.

The Earthjustice issue paper urges broadening of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Adverse Effects of the Illicit Movement and Dumping of Toxic and Dangerous Products and Wastes on the Enjoyment of Human Rights. "As a world leader in the protection of human rights, the UN Commission on Human Rights should set the pace for such recognition and, further, guarantee the right to a clean and healthy environment," said Marcello Mollo of Earthjustice, author of this year's report.

Paul Hunt, special rapporteur on the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, also linked human rights and the environment. On Monday, World Health Day, Hunt said that the human right to health is not simply the right to health care. "It is also a right to the underlying determinants of health, including food and nutrition, housing, access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, and a healthy environment."

"Every year," Hunt said, "more than five million children aged 0-14 die from diseases linked to the environment, such as malaria, schistosomiasis and cholera. Exposure to pollution and toxic substances threatens the health of children throughout the world. Poverty, conflict and natural disasters create particular difficulties for sustaining healthy environments for children."

Of the 191 nations in the world, there are now 109 national constitutions that mention the protection of the environment or natural resources. One hundred of them recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment and/or the state's obligation to prevent environmental harm, Earthjustice reports. Fifty-three constitutions explicitly recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment, and 92 make it the duty of the national government to prevent harm to the environment.

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