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Hazardous Substances Undermine Human Rights to Health, Life: OHCHR and UNEP

Hazardous substances significantly affect human rights, including the rights to health and life, according to a publication from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The six-page set of key messages on 'Human Rights and Hazardous Substances' highlights the human rights obligations and responsibilities of countries and other stakeholders, such as businesses, to prevent and remedy the harmful effects of hazardous substances on the rights of everyone. The authors explain that the complete lifecycle of hazardous substances can significantly affect the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, including the rights to: life; a healthy environment; and the highest standards of health, food, clean water and sanitation, and housing.

Human rights laws should be used to hold accountable those responsible for the harmful impacts of hazardous substances.

The authors note that pollution is the largest source of premature deaths in developing countries, causing around three times more deaths than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. It disproportionately affects those in vulnerable situations, reflecting both historical and ongoing discrimination, racism, and power imbalances, which the publication recalls have led to the environmental justice movement.

The key messages call for the application of human rights laws, norms, and standards to ensure that those responsible for the harmful impacts of hazardous substances are held legally accountable. It also calls for implementing measures to prevent harmful impacts in the future.

The six key messages detailed in the document are: ensuring a “non-toxic environment” for present and future generations; cooperating internationally to prevent and combat harms from exposure to hazardous substances; preventing exposure to hazardous substances from business activities; guaranteeing everyone has access to information about hazardous substances; ensuring meaningful and informed participation for all in decision-making processes; and ensuring accountability and effective remedies for the harm caused by hazardous substances. [Publication: Human Rights and Hazardous Substances: Key Messages]