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Indigenous Peoples testify on intergenerational health impacts of hazardous substances

An Expert Group (EGM) meeting was held from January 19 to 20, 2019 at the Centro Cultural de España in Mexico City, Mexico, to provide information to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Mr. Baskut Tuncak.

UN Expert Group Meeting
Participants at the UN Expert Group Meeting in Mexico City, Mexico

The EGM, hosted by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and the Centre for the Autonomy and Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI, Nicaragua) with the Fund for Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean (FILAC), provided the opportunity for representatives from five regions to present testimonies and community-based studies to contribute to the Special Rapporteur’s current Human Rights Legal Review of the United Nations Chemical Conventions focusing on the impacts on Indigenous Peoples.

During the two-day meeting, Indigenous community-based experts and scientists shared examples of the human rights and health impacts caused by the application of banned and highly toxic pesticides, extractive industries such as gold mining using mercury, toxic waste incineration and other activities carried out in Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories without their free prior and informed consent.

Representatives of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN Committee on Food Security Civil Society and indigenous Peoples Mechanism also presented at the EGM. The Mexican government’s National Institute of Indigenous Peoples provided an official welcome statement to inaugurate the EGM and also participated for both days.

Indigenous experts shared testimonies and studies confirming the devastating health impacts of toxic contamination in their communities including birth defects, infant mortality, reproductive impairment, and cancers. Many identified these impacts as “environmental violence” resulting in extreme suffering and many deaths, especially among infants and small children.

They affirmed that Indigenous women and girls are particularly affected because of the well-known impacts of environmental toxics on women’s bodies and reproductive health. The disproportionate impacts on disabled persons in Indigenous communities were also presented.

Indigenous presenters insisted that drastic and immediate change was required on the local national and international levels so that the use and storage of hazardous substances could not take place in their lands without their free prior and informed consent as affirmed in Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

They called for effective clean-up of contaminated areas, remedies for those whose lives and human rights have been affected, corporate and government responsibility to provide redress and remedy to those who have been harmed, restoration of traditional food systems and non-toxic agricultural methods, programs to address extreme poverty and the development of safe, economically viable livelihoods in Indigenous communities that are not harmful to their health or the environment.

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) recommended that this legal review be carried out in 2014 and again in 2016 with the assistance of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics to address the disconnect between the UN chemicals conventions, in particular the Rotterdam Convention which permits the international import and export of banned pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and UN Human Rights Norms and Standards including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In April 2018, the Special Rapporteur shared some of his preliminary observations at the UNPFII’s 17th session “…Indigenous peoples such as the Yaqui have suffered grave adverse impacts on their health and dignity from of the ongoing use of highly hazardous pesticides. These pesticides are often imported from countries that have banned their use domestically because of uncontrollable and unreasonable risks.”

In this statement, he also observed that regarding the import, export, and use of toxic substances impacting Indigenous communities “there is no recognition of the right to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.”

“This legal review by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics is very important to the UNPFII and to Indigenous Peoples around the world,” said Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua from Peru, who participated in the EGM as an expert member of the UNPFII from Latin America and the Caribbean, focusing on issues impacting Indigenous women, children and youth.

Rivera Zea affirmed at the EGM that “it is time for UN mechanisms and processes to move from recommendations to implementations” and to find “new ways forward that effectively respect international legal norms and standards protecting the rights of women, children, and Indigenous Peoples”. She also called upon States to take responsibility to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the public health of everyone by halting the production, import and export and use of substances known to be deadly to human health and children’s development, whether they are produced by industrial agriculture, mining, oil drilling, fracking or other forms of unsustainable production.”

The outcomes of the Special Rapporteur’s legal review will be presented at the 18th session of the UNPFII in April and also at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in 2019.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (informally known as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics) was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1995 to examine the human rights implications of toxic and otherwise hazardous substances. 

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