Tag Archives: UNHRC

Upcoming Canadian Country Visit of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics

 By Associate Professor Sara Seck and JD candidate Meg Williams, Schulich School of Law, Marine & Environmental Law Institute, Dalhousie University.

It has just been announced that the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics, Baskut Tuncak, will conduct an official country visit to Canada from 24 May to 5 June 2019. The Special Rapporteur has issued an invitation to all interested individuals and organizations in Canada, including civil society organizations, activists, and academics, to submit information that they consider relevant in preparation of this visit by 15 April 2019 to srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org. The information may be sent in English or French and must not be longer than 10 pages. The call for submissions is now online and is available in both English and French. The Special Rapporteur is interested in receiving information on “human rights and and exposure to toxic substances and wastes in Canada, including on pollution, contamination, occupational diseases linked to toxic exposures, toxic consumer products, and other sources of exposure to hazardous substances and wastes.” He has also expressed interest in receiving information on “cases concerning activities of Canadian businesses operating abroad.” Among priority concerns are “circumstances involving toxic exposures of children, indigenous peoples, workers, low income communities, and other groups at high risk.” Information on legal frameworks for the regulation of human rights and toxics in Canada is also invited, as well as contact information for organizations and civil society representatives who wish to meet with him during the country visit.

In our last blog post, we reflected on recent work of a different United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and drew attention to the 2018 Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment and its implications for local environmental justice concerns. In light of the upcoming visit by the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, we will consider a selection of his reports, building on our previous consideration in an earlier blog post of Mr. Tuncak’s 2015 report on the right to information. Specifically, this post will focus on Mr. Tuncak’s 2016 report on The Rights of the Child and Hazardous Substances and Wastes (2016, A/HRC/33/41), as well as his  2018 report on the The Rights of Workers and Toxic Chemical Exposure (2018, A/HRC/39/48), while also referring to the 2017 Guidelines to Good Practices (2017, A/HRC/36/41).

Mr. Tuncak assumed the mandate as the Special Rapporteur on Toxics in 2014, taking over from the previous Special Rapporteur, Mr. Calin Georgescu. The UN Human Rights Council mandates the Special Rapporteur to provide comprehensive and current information on the impacts of hazardous substances on human rights, and covers all hazardous substances and wastes that are used, produced and released by human activity. Mr. Tuncak’s 2014 mandate reaffirms the commitments of the 2012 mandate of Mr. Georgescu which notably calls for the monitoring of not only States but also “transnational corporations and businesses enterprises in connection with the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes” (para 2(a)). As a result, Mr. Tuncak’s reports pay close attention to the responsibilities of business enterprises in regards to the issue of toxics and human rights.

Mr. Tuncak’s 2016 report focuses specifically on childhood exposure to toxic substances and the resulting human rights impacts. The report examines how children’s rights are violated by State and business actors through exposure to toxic chemicals and pollution. Mr. Tuncak describes the impacts of toxics and pollution as the “silent pandemic” as children are born “pre-polluted” resulting from maternal exposure that continues after birth and into childhood (para 5). He takes notice that children of low-income, Indigenous, or marginalized communities are at greater risk to exposure, leading to questions of environmental racism that undermine equality and non-discrimination (para 6). The report recognizes that the impacts of toxics and pollutants on children are affected by their familial, communal, and environmental situation.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides guiding principles for State obligations in preventing childhood exposure from toxics and pollutions, and Mr. Tuncak elaborates upon eleven State obligations in his report. These include implementation of the best interests of the child framework (para 19-21) as well as the right to be heard (paras 22-26), the right to life, survival and development (paras 27-28), the right to physical and mental integrity (paras 29-38), the right to effective remedy (paras 39-43), the right to the highest attainable standard of health (paras 44-48), the right to a healthy environment (para 49), the right to adequate standard of living (para 50), the right to non-discrimination (paras 51-53), the right to be free from the worst forms of child labour (paras 54-56), and the right to information (paras 57-61). The report observes that “toxics released into air, wind and water can directly or indirectly lead to childhood exposure, impacting on the child’s right to health.” (para 49). In this sense, children are not treated as bounded autonomous individuals but instead are understood as embodied beings who are inseparable from the environments in which they live.

The 2016 report also considers the business responsibility to prevent the exposure of children to toxics. Businesses are to undertake human rights due diligence to prevent childhood exposures (paras 75-78), to prevent toxic exposure at all points in business activities (paras 79-89), to ensure responsible business relationships (paras 90-97), and to ensure effective remedy through non-recurrence, rehabilitation, and compensation (paras 98-106). Notably, Mr. Tuncak links business activities and industrialization to toxics and pollutants in the environment, and in turn to the adverse effects on children. However, this report does not link labour and employment conditions, and the exposure of workers, to childhood exposure, an issue that is taken up in subsequent reports.

 In 2017, Mr. Tuncak released a Guidelines for Good Practices report in response to the disparities existing within and among countries in reducing the impacts of hazardous substances. The Guidelines acknowledge both the duties of States and the responsibilities of businesses in addressing these disparities. The Guidelines highlight the foundational obligation of States to “respect, protect, and fulfill recognized rights implicated by the production, use, release, storage and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes” (para 4), including the rights of those impacted by transboundary and transnational harms. Additionally, the report confirms that special attention is required with regard to the rights of vulnerable populations, including low-income communities, children, workers, older persons, Indigenous peoples, minorities, post-conflict communities, and vulnerable genders. With regard to businesses, the Special Rapporteur confirms that “virtually all businesses bear some responsibility” (para 81) to respect the human rights that are impacted by their activities, supply chains, products, policies, procedures, and business relationships. He notes that due diligence is fundamental to this responsibility, and then outlines a number of responsibilities of businesses in regards to reducing human rights impacts of toxics. These include the duty of businesses to identify and assess the potential human rights impacts of their activities. Importantly, this means that businesses must “go beyond mere compliance with existing legislation and regulations” (para 83) which is usually behind compared to rapid industrial sector expansion. Second, businesses have the responsibility to prevent and mitigate the impacts on human rights. Prevention of impacts is most effectively achieved through the elimination of hazardous substances from business activities while mitigation should occur immediately, even before the State gives orders to do so. The third responsibility outlined is the duty to account for efforts to address the impacts on human rights. This involves publicly communicating information about the risks created by business activities as well as mitigation plans to address the actual and potential impacts involved.

While the 2017 Guidelines Report focuses briefly on the rights of workers, the 2018 report “The Rights of Workers and Toxic Chemical Exposure” is devoted to this issue, and proposes principles to guide State and non-State actors in protecting workers from toxic occupational exposures and to provide remedy for rights violations. The report examines the human rights of workers affected by their occupational exposure to toxic and hazardous substances, a summary of the current challenges facing workers globally, and proposed principles to respect and protect the rights of these workers (para 10). He notes that worker’s rights and human rights are “interrelated, indivisible and universal” (para 14) in that no worker can be deprived of their civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights based on the work that they perform (para 14). The Special Rapporteur also examine the challenges in realizing the rights of workers affected by toxic substance exposures. These challenges include inadequate standards of protection (para 38), limited progress in preventing exposure (paras 39-41), poor monitoring and enforcement gaps (para 42), the exploitation of those most at risk, including those living in poverty (paras 45-46), women (para 48), children (paras 49-50), migrant and temporary workers (para 51-52), workers with disabilities (para 53), and older worker (para 54).  Additionally, the report notes the challenges introduced by the informal economy (para 55), the deliberate efforts to delay or obstruct protection (paras 56-58), the opaque nature of supply chains (paras 59-60), the disconnected efforts on occupation and environmental health (para 61), failures to realize the right to information (paras 62-66), limited implementation of ILO instruments (paras 67-68), restrained freedom of association (para 69), and inaccessible remedies, justice, and accountability (paras 70-71).

Following an examination of the current state of workers’ rights in light of exposure to toxic substances, and challenges for realizing such rights, the Special Rapporteur proposes 15 Principles to assist States, businesses and other stakeholders to protect, respect, and fulfil the human rights of workers who have been victims of occupational exposures to toxic and hazardous substances (para 73). These are grouped into three subsections: (A) Principles on duties and responsibilities to prevent exposure, (B) Principles regarding information, participation and assembly, and (C) Principles regarding effective remedies. Without going into detail on the 15 Principles, some are worth further reflection. For example, Principle 7 acknowledges that protecting workers from exposure to toxic substances will in turn protect their families, their communities and the environment. Additionally, Principles 13 and 14 recognize the importance of considering the burden of exposure on workers’ families.

These principles, together with the observation in the 2016 report on Children’s Rights that “toxics released into air, wind and water can directly or indirectly lead to childhood exposure, impacting on the child’s right to health” suggest an awareness that individuals, whether adults or children, should not be viewed as surrounded by impermeable boundaries that are capable of protecting individual autonomy from the toxins that exist in workplaces and local environments. This need to move beyond an understanding of the worker as a bounded autonomous individual is something that I have explored in a recently published article in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society entitled Transnational Labour Law and the Environment: Beyond the Bounded Autonomous Worker.* There, I suggest that reconceptualizing the worker as a relational being, rather than a bounded autonomous citizen, may help to bridge labour and environmental law, two disciplines that too often operate in silos.

Currently, the focus of international and transnational labour law is primarily on workers and their rights so that they may work without fear and with the assurance of a sustainable livelihood. However, I propose that it may be helpful to reframe transnational labour law to better embrace environmental rights. For example, we might reimagine the individual worker as a corporeal citizen who is embedded in a material environment, and so better appreciate that workers and children exposed to toxics arising from industrial activities cannot be viewed as autonomous individuals separate and distinct from families, communities, and environment. This holistic approach reinforces the interdependent duties of both States and businesses to protect both workers and the environment in which they and their families live. As I observe in my article, signs of such a conceptual shift are evident in a 2015 study by UNICEF which recognizes that the rights of children of predominantly female garment workers in Bangladesh were affected by the working and living conditions of the garment worker through impacts relating to the conditions inside and outside of the factory. This focus on the worker as a family and community member, and specifically their role as a parent, aligns with the Special Rapporteur’s reports on Children’s Rights and the Rights of Workers which, in light of their focus on toxic substances, illustrate a shift from thinking of the worker as an autonomous bounded individual to viewing the rights of workers as interdependent with rights to live in a clean and healthy surrounding environment.

The upcoming Canadian country visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics provides an opportunity to reflect upon these issues and, more pressingly, to take action to prevent and remedy harms. For further information on previous country visits by other UN human rights Special Rapporteurs to Canada, as well as other human rights reviews, see here. For outcome reports of other country visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, see here.

*Sara L Seck, “Transnational Labour Law and the Environment: Beyond the Bounded Autonomous Worker” (2018) 33:2 Canadian Journal of Law & Society 137-157, published online 5 September 2018, https://doi.org/10.1017/cls.2018.15

 Featured image: Anna Grear

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GNHRE Statement on the Withdrawal of the United States from UNHRC

Statement on the

Withdrawal of the United States

from the United Nations Human Rights Council

In a joint statement of Tuesday 19 June 2018, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced the withdrawal of the United States from its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council, successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was first chaired in January 1947 by Eleanor Roosevelt, is the world’s pre-eminent forum for monitoring, investigating and reporting on the full range of universal human rights guaranteed in international and national law, including those related directly to the enjoyment of a safe and healthy environment.

The Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) — a broad-based network of concerned experts and scholars working for a better human and environmental future — expresses its deep concern and regret at the United States of America’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council for the following reasons.

First, the UN Human Rights Council continues to provide an effective check on the power of Governments that may be perpetrating or tolerating human rights violations, and US withdrawal from the Council seems minimally to signal the current Administration’s diminishing commitment to the UN human rights system and to human rights more generally.

Second, while the Council is admittedly far from perfect, greater US engagement in improving its work and strengthening the global commitment to advancing human rights would have more effective, both symbolically and politically.

Third, US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is particularly untimely and troubling because the Council has just taken strides towards recognition of the right to a healthy environment as a universal and fundamental human right within international law.

Fourth, the US withdrawal from the Council is part of a wider pattern of failure to engage with global partners on multiple forms of international progress in relation to human rights and environmental protections, including its previous announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, to take effect on 4 November 2020.

This latest withdrawal should be seen for what it is: a negative, retrograde step at a pivotally important moment for a world facing climate emergency, a rising tide of human rights violations and deepening levels of concern for all life on Earth.

Feature image of the HRC in session: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/Home.aspx

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Human Rights and the Environment: Where Next? (A. Boyle)

Author(s)

Alan Boyle

Keywords

environmental protection, international law, UNHRC, human rights law, procedural rights, mechanisms, extra-territorial application, transboundary pollution, global climate change

Abstract

The relationship between human rights and environmental protection in international law is far from simple or straightforward. A new attempt to codify and develop international law on this subject was initiated by the UNHRC in 2011. What can it say that is new or that develops the existing corpus of human rights law? Three obvious possibilities are explored in this article. First, procedural rights are the most important environmental addition to human rights law since the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Any attempt to codify the law on human rights and the environment would necessarily have to take this development into account. Secondly, a declaration or protocol could be an appropriate mechanism for articulating in some form the still controversial notion of a right to a decent environment. Thirdly, the difficult issue of extra-territorial application of existing human rights treaties to transboundary pollution and global climate change remains unresolved. The article concludes that the response of human rights law – if it is to have one – needs to be in global terms, treating the global environment and climate as the common concern of humanity.

Citation

(2012) 23 The European Journal of International Law 613

Paper

Human Rights and the Environment: Where Next?

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