ENVIRONMENT: Children's rights-focused report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics

In this report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes focuses on the obligations of States and the responsibilities of businesses to prevent childhood exposure to potentially harmful substances.

Below is an introduction to the issue and the report from the Special Rapporteur, Baskut Tuncak.

The best interests of the child should be at the heart of decision making when it comes to protecting children’s rights to life, survival and development, health, freedom from the worst forms of child labour, and also to safe food, water and housing. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly links children’s right to health with pollution and contamination, but there are still systemic failures to realizing children’s rights in the context of toxic chemicals.

Childhood exposure to toxic substances in every part of the world has created a “silent pandemic” of disease and disability affecting millions of children and adults. Rates of disease and disability linked to childhood exposure to toxic chemicals have increased around the world at rates that can not be explained by genetics or lifestyle choices, leaving toxic chemicals and pollution as a major contributing factor. Recent cases have called into question how effectively States are protecting human rights when it comes to toxics, and children’s rights are arguably the most at risk. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 1,700,000 children under the age of five died prematurely from modifiable environmental factors; but these figures are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to death, disease and disability linked to toxics and pollution.  

My new report, to be presented to the Human Rights Council this month, offers an examination of how children’s rights are violated by both State and non-state entities by exposure of under-18s to toxic chemicals and pollution. It argues that States have a duty, and businesses a corresponding responsibility, to prevent childhood exposure. Today, the laws, policies and practices of States and businesses are inconsistent with this obligation.

Emissions from manufacturing and extractive industries, the use of hazardous pesticides and industrial chemicals in consumer products and food incessantly expose children to hundreds of chemicals that are unquestionably hazardous and countless others with unknown risks. These exposures can all drastically affect the health and quality of life of children when exposed during critical periods of development, affecting their rights to life, health and physical integrity.

When exposure does occur, children are too often left without access to an effective remedy or justice for harms related to toxics and pollution. The deadly, lifelong impacts of this assault on children’s bodies frequently remain invisible until later in their lives, making it difficult to prove how and when the damage was done, and enabling impunity for perpetrators.

Solutions to the challenge of toxics and their impacts on children are available, but they must be rooted in human rights to be effective, including the obligation on States to prevent childhood exposure to toxic chemicals.

-- Baskut Tuncak


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