When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shown obscured in smoke in November 2018, after the disastrous Camp Fire occurred north of Sacramento. US Interior Secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, said wildfires in California in 2018 released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state.

© 2018 Eric Risberg/AP Images

Air pollution is on the rise in the United States after steadily declining from 2009 to 2016, according to new research published this month. The study, based on data from 1.8 million daily readings of air monitors in 653 counties across the US, also finds that increased air pollution was associated with 9,700 premature deaths between 2016 and 2018. These findings exemplify what amount to serious threats to the rights to health, life, and a healthy environment.

The working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan US-based research organization. The study attributes the 5.5 percent increase in fine particulate pollution since 2013 to factors including more frequent wildfires and decreased enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the federal law designed to control national air pollution. In addition to increased deaths, fine particulate pollution has been linked to asthma, heart and lung disease, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.

The authors highlighted a dramatic decline in penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act. Between 2016 and 2018, there was an approximately 40 percent decline in recorded 113d violations, the most common enforcement action that results in a fine or penalty. While the study does not conclusively tie this decline to inadequate regulatory oversight alone, it is worrisome when combined with the Trump administration’s overall lack of environmental enforcement and the increase in US air pollution since 2016.

Industrial activities, which have increased in the US since 2016, pollute the air and contribute to climate change. Climate change can increase the risk of wildfires that further pollute air and emit toxins harmful to human health. This link, which the Trump Administration has acknowledged, illustrates a concerning point: air pollution can contribute to climate change while the effects of climate change can contribute to and exacerbate the health risks posed by air pollution.

Trump has made cutting regulations that protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions a cornerstone of his presidency. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where these rollbacks hurt efforts to reduce air and water pollution. For example, the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule directly impacts coal communities’ access to safe water and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing weakening of rules around coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, threatens rights to water, health, and a safe environment.

This new research is yet another critical reminder that the public pays for poor environmental regulation and the impacts of climate change with their health, and sometimes, their lives.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video: UN Should Compensate Kosovo Lead Poisoning Victims

The United Nations’ failure to compensate victims of widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps in Kosovo has left affected families struggling to care for sick relatives who were exposed to the contamination.

Yesterday was supposed to be a celebration at the United Nations.

October 24 is United Nations Day, marking the day the UN Charter officially came into effect in 1945. The Charter includes the commitment to protect human rights.

But on the UN’s birthday, the world body received sharp criticism regarding its own human rights record.

The UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, Baskut Tuncak, reprimanded the UN for failing victims of widespread lead poisoning in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war. Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities were forced to live in UN-run camps contaminated by lead from a nearby industrial mine for more than a decade. Hundreds got sick. Many still suffer health consequences today.

In his presentation to the General Assembly, Tuncak warned: “[t]he integrity of the U.N. system is undermined by its failure to provide relief and remedy to these Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families.”

In a new report on the human rights obligation to prevent exposure to toxic substances, Tuncak noted a 2016 independent UN investigation into human rights claims against the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) that found violations against the displaced communities and recommended the UN pay individual compensation.

Lead can impair the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities. The victims have been waiting for justice and support for more than a decade.

This is not the first time the UN has been criticized for its failure to provide a remedy. In June, Tuncak wrote to six UN bodies, urging them to prioritize the victims in Kosovo and advocate for greater visibility of the issue. Only the World Health Organization responded, saying it considers the voluntary trust fund that UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres created more than two years ago the best way to help the affected communities. To date, only one country has contributed to the trust fund and it falls short of offering individual compensation.

After marking the UN’s anniversary, UN member states, the UN secretary-general, and heads of other UN bodies should heed the call of their own experts to ensure that victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo finally get justice.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Aerial photo of the vast freshwater resources in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, Ontario, Canada. October 2018.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Toronto) – Canada’s new government should make addressing the lack of safe drinking water in many First Nations communities in Canada an urgent priority, Chiefs of Ontario and Human Rights Watch said today. Despite some progress over the last four years, successive Canadian governments have an overall record of failure to deliver on their promises for safe drinking water.

Human Rights Watch and Chiefs of Ontario are releasing a guide on the human right to water for First Nations communities and advocates. The report provides an overview of the legal framework behind the human right to water and recommendations on how to work with government officials and other towards the realization of this right.

“Despite focused media and government attention, many First Nations communities in Canada face a daily struggle to get safe drinking water,” said Amanda Klasing, acting women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch. “More needs to be done, and we hope this guide will be an additional tool for communities to make their voices heard as a new parliament is seated and gets to work.”

In 2015 and 2016, Human Rights Watch conducted research in First Nations communities in Ontario and found that the Canadian government had violated a range of international human rights obligations by failing to provide a safe water supply to First Nations reserves.

Since that time, the federal government has taken steps to increase transparency in situations in which First Nations communities have long been without a safe water supply. The federal government stated their intention to work more closely with the communities to address the problems, including working to develop an assets management approach. Such an approach would ensure that funds and other resources are sufficient for operation and maintenance to keep functioning systems in good working order.

Indigenous Services Canada in September 2019 announced new investments in operations and maintenance consistent with this approach, a move that First Nations have long called for. The government should include sufficient funds in the budget to support the effort.

There has also been regional engagement by the federal government with First Nations on potential successor legislation to the controversial Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. While more engagement by Indigenous Services Canada is expected in early 2020, First Nations need assurances that the commitment to co-development of legislation on safe drinking water in reserves will ensure First Nations have a meaningful role in writing the rules for developing and maintaining safe water supplies in their own communities.

Many communities on First Nations reserves face immediate water emergencies that need urgent attention. At least 56 drinking water advisories remained in place as of October 4, and the underlying systemic water and wastewater problems facing First Nations in Canada remain. The Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario has had a Boil Water Advisory in place for the last 23 years and recently faced an infrastructure failure that led to evacuation of the community.

The Chiefs of Ontario continue to press federal and provincial governments to provide safe, potable drinking water – which is a human right – for First Nations peoples. The Chiefs of Ontario are advocating for sustainable water systems under a cooperative effort with the federal governments based on truth and reconciliation.

It is often those who least contribute to water crises around the world who are most affected by the outcome, Human Rights Watch and Ontario Chiefs said. Everyone is entitled to safe drinking water and sanitation. Canada has played an important role in promoting efforts to meet this goal globally. First Nations communities are working on the front lines to see that this obligation is met in Canada.

“Water is life,” said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald. “We recognize women as the sacred keepers of the water and know that it's a gift that connects all life. Water is significant to our way of life and livelihoods, and we recognize our inherent responsibilities as caretakers to protect water. Our responsibilities and our rights include all aspects of the use of water, jurisdiction and stewardship over use and access to water, and the protection of water.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Objective of this Guide

Many First Nations persons are facing daily challenges just to access safe water for drinking and hygiene—a fundamental human right easily enjoyed by most Canadians. In 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report on First Nations communities in the province of Ontario that looked at the human impacts of this crisis and why the problem persists. We found that the Canadian government has violated its international human rights obligations toward First Nations persons and communities by failing to remedy the severe water crisis.

Along with infrastructure investments, the federal government should remedy a range of problems that contribute to the water crisis. This guide seeks to set out how First Nations communities and advocates can use the human rights framework as an additional tool in advocating for safe drinking water. While First Nations persons and peoples have aboriginal and treaty rights from which they can build their advocacy, the drinking water crisis on reserves is a space where human rights are also highly relevant. This guide seeks to provide an overview of the legal framework behind the human right to water and recommendations on how to engage government actors on the topic.

This guide is intended to be a tool that is accessible and useful for chiefs and councils, communities and individual waterkeepers, and advocates.

What are Human Rights?

To speak of “human rights,” or to use the language of international human rights law, is to speak an international language, one that, for all its complex and sometimes controversial history, has served as a powerful tool for positive change. As one human rights historian notes, human rights “evoke hope and provoke action.”[1]

But what are human rights, and how do they generate change? According to the leading United Nations human rights agency:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.[2]

People or organizations often invoke human rights as a rhetorical tool to bring weight and gravity to situations of injustice. But the power of human rights’ rhetoric derives from these terms being grounded in a framework that has the force of international law, under which governments have obligations.

International human rights define the relationship between a state (the government) as a “duty-bearer” of rights and people living in that state as “rights-holders.” This means that the primary responsibility for making sure that people can enjoy their human rights rests with the government. States have voluntarily decided to accept the obligations contained in international human rights treaties to which they have agreed to become a party. They are also bound by customary human rights law, to which all states must abide.

A human rights-based approach is one that makes those directly affected by a human rights failure central to planning and operationalizing a response. This approach recognizes individuals and communities as rights-holders with legal entitlements and identifies governments and their partners as duty-bearers with obligations to meet those entitlements. Adhering to human rights principles requires particular attention to the needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups, access to information, and the establishment of procedures to ensure nondiscrimination and equality, accountability, and participation.

Human rights standards should guide all stages of programming, and any direct or indirect discrimination on any grounds should be eliminated immediately.

Working on drinking water through a human rights lens will often require looking at systemic problems, as these most often constitute the barriers to the realization of human rights. In practice, regulations, local by-laws and administrative procedures can act either as enablers or barriers to enjoying human rights. Understanding these barriers and identifying how and why they unjustifiably interfere with human rights can inform how to advocate more effectively for change or hold governments accountable.

Human rights are not the only frame from which First Nations individuals and communities can advocate for clean and safe water. In June 2019, the Chiefs in Assembly at the Chiefs of Ontario All Ontario Chiefs Conference passed a resolution designating the Great Lakes as living entities with endowed rights and ordered the Chiefs of Ontario to research the legal process of granting personhood to bodies of water.[3] This is not without precedent. Upon the advocacy and encouragement of the Māori peoples, the parliament of New Zealand granted the Whanganui River the same legal rights as people, ensuring legal guardians can represent the interests of the river in matters affecting it.[4] In Colombia, the Supreme Court advanced the rights of nature in a 2018 ruling that recognized the Amazon river eco-system as a rights-holder.[5]

The Human Right to Water

Canada has ratified numerous human rights treaties that contain obligations related to water and sanitation, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[6] Canada has also endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). [7] This Declaration recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to determine and develop priorities for the development or use of their lands or territories and recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to maintain and strengthen their spiritual relationship with traditionally owned or occupied lands, territories, waters, coastal seas, and other resources, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations.[8]

A number of international human rights bodies and experts have raised concerns, specifically, that Canada has failed to fulfill First Nations peoples’ rights to water and sanitation.[9] For example, after its February 2016 review of Canada, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which monitors governments’ compliance with the ICESCR, noted its concern about “the restricted access to safe drinking water and to sanitation by the First Nations as well as the lack of water regulations for the First Nations people living on reserves.” It urged Canada to “live up to its commitment to ensure access to safe drinking water and to sanitation for the First Nations while ensuring their active participation in water planning and management,” and to “bear in mind not only indigenous peoples’ economic right to water but also the cultural significance of water to indigenous peoples.”[10]

The right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to:

  • sufficient,
  • safe,
  • acceptable,
  • physically accessible, and
  • affordable water for personal and domestic use.[11]

Various resolutions from the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council affirm that the right to safe drinking water is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living.[12] The right to an adequate standard of living is enshrined in human rights instruments ratified by Canada, such as the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRPD, and the CRC.

The CESCR, in its General Comment 15 on the right to water, noted that an aspect of the core content of the right to water is that water required for personal or domestic use must be safe. This means it must be free from harmful microbes and parasites, chemical substances, and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.[13]

The committee also stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to water can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”[14]

The then UN Special Rapporteur on the on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque (hereinafter “the special rapporteur”), has also noted that in situations of emergency, states “have an obligation to provide culturally appropriate services directly.”[15] She also noted that violations of the right to water may result from a failure to act, to implement comprehensive plans and strategies that ensure the full realization of the rights in the long term, to regulate non-state actors, and as an unintended consequence of policies, programs, and other measures.[16]

Related Human Rights

Right to Sanitation

The right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to “have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.”[17] As with the right to water, the right to sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living.[18]

The special rapporteur has stated that states should “ensure that the management of human excreta does not negatively impact on human rights.”[19]

Right to Health

The right to the highest attainable standard of health is found in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in international treaties binding upon Canada, including the ICESCR and the CRC.[20]

The CESCR, in its General Comment 14 on the right to health, has interpreted the ICESCR to include:

[T]he requirement to ensure an adequate supply of safe and potable water and basic sanitation [and] the prevention and reduction of the population’s exposure to harmful substances such as radiation and harmful chemicals, or other detrimental environmental conditions that directly or indirectly impact upon human health.[21]

The right to health encompasses the right to healthy natural environments.[22] This right involves the obligation to “prevent threats to health from unsafe and toxic water conditions.”[23]

The CESCR has stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to health can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”[24]

Right to Housing

The poor water and sanitation situation in First Nation communities is related to challenges in realizing other human rights—with housing as a primary concern. Overcrowding is the norm on reserves, and many communities cannot address this issue through extending their housing stock without upgrades to their water and wastewater infrastructure. The right to housing is found in article 25 of the UDHR, as a part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and in international treaties binding upon Canada, including the ICESCR.[25]

The CESCR, in its General Comment 4 on the right to adequate housing, has interpreted the right to include:

[C]ertain facilities essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition. All beneficiaries of the right to adequate housing should have sustainable access to natural and common resources, safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.[26]

The CESCR has stated parties to the treaty should “give due priority to those social groups living in unfavourable conditions by giving them particular consideration.”[27]

Right to Nondiscrimination

Core international human rights treaties expressly prohibit discrimination and require the parties to these conventions to take measures to eradicate all forms of discrimination against individuals.

The CESCR, in its General Comment No. 20 on non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights, recommended that states parties adopt “specific legislation that prohibits discrimination in the field of economic, social and cultural rights. Such laws should aim at eliminating formal and substantive discrimination, attribute obligations to public and private actors, and cover the prohibited grounds discussed above. Other laws should be regularly reviewed and, where necessary, amended in order to ensure that they do not discriminate or lead to discrimination, whether formally or substantively, in relation to the exercise and enjoyment of Covenant rights.”[28]

Knowing About and Acting on the Human Right to Water

Everyone has the right to know their rights and to be able to act on those rights meaningfully. For the right to water, this means the government has to engage with communities to give them sufficient information about water resources and the risks to those resources. It also means the government has to involve all communities in decisions that affect water resources and ensure that these decisions are taken with the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous communities.

The Right to Information

The right to water also entails certain procedural obligations when it comes to the provision of information about water resources and the involvement of community members in decisions that impact water resources. Specifically, the right to water protects the right of individuals to have full access to information held by public authorities or third parties, such as corporations, concerning water services and the environment.[29]  It is also protected under the right to participation[30] and as an independent right in and of itself.[31]

This means that the Canadian government has a legal obligation to ensure that information relevant to water resource use and quality is made available, accessible, functional, and shared in a manner consistent with the principle of nondiscrimination.

Available means that “current reliable information has been generated and collected in a manner adequate to assess the magnitude of potential adverse impacts on the rights of people.”[32]

Accessible means that “everyone can seek, obtain, receive and hold available information,” that the information is provided “in a timely manner,” and that any costs resulting from accessing such information are “kept at a minimum.”[33]

Functional means that the information “works to prevent harm, to enable democratic decision-making, and to ensure accountability, access to justice, and an effective remedy.”[34] Technical language must be “translated into a language that is functional, to enable individuals and groups of individuals to make informed choices,” and the “underlying data from which conclusions are drawn” must be accessible.[35]

Consistent with the principle of nondiscrimination means that information must be “disaggregated and specialized” to “understand and prevent disproportionate implications and impacts of hazardous substances and wastes on individuals and specific population groups, including different ages, incomes, ethnicities, genders as well as minorities and indigenous peoples.”[36]

The special rapporteur has emphasized that in the context of water, the right to information means “Public bodies should proactively publish information rather than merely react to crises or complaints. Requests for information should be processed rapidly and fairly.”[37]

The Right to Participation

Providing information in-line with the right to information is also essential to the fulfillment of the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect the exercise of the right to water,[38] and the case of Indigenous communities, the right to free, prior, and informed consent with respect to projects implicating the utilization of water resources.[39] “Participation is not a single event, but a continuous process”,[40] and it must be “active, free, and meaningful.”[41]

Active, free, and meaningful participation requires more than “token forms of participation,” such as “the mere sharing of information or superficial consultation.”[42] Rather, “[s]tates have an obligation to invite participation and to create opportunities from the beginning of deliberations on a particular measure and before any decisions, even de facto decisions, have been taken.”[43] Further, “[p]articipants must be involved in determining the terms of participation, the scope of issues and the questions to be addressed, their framing and sequencing, and rules of procedure.”[44] In the context of the right to water, required participation includes the right to participate in decisions on financing and budgeting of water services;[45] and the type, location, and improvement of water service provision, including whether to involve the private sector.[46]

For meaningful participation to occur, it is important to ensure that people’s views are not only considered, but actually influence decision-making.[47] The special rapporteur observes that “[o]ften, consultations are oriented towards securing people’s consent rather than involving them in the design of measures. If people are allowed ‘voice without influence,’ i.e., they are involved in processes that have no impact on policymaking, the potential for frustration is enormous.”[48]

States should also actively work to eliminate barriers to participation.[49] Barriers can take the form of prohibitive costs for people participating, both in terms of lost time and opportunity costs.[50] “In order to justify the costs and avoid frustration,” the special rapporteur notes, “participation must be meaningful and actually influence decision-making.” Indeed, for government and service providers, “the cost of undoing or redoing a project because of people’s objections can be higher than the costs of participatory processes.”[51] The special rapporteur also notes:

The most persistent barrier to participation may lie in surmounting a culture of low expectations and cynicism, beliefs harboured both by individuals and public officials. States should revise the incentive structures for public officials so that they are rewarded for facilitating genuine participation rather than regarding it merely as an item to be mechanically ticked off on a checklist. This may require training on facilitation and inter-personal skills.[52]

Active, free, and meaningful participation also requires that participation must be free from coercion or inducement, direct or indirect.[53] More specifically, the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation has asserted that, “There must be no conditions attached, such as tying access to water and sanitation to attendance of a public hearing. Participation must not be secured through bribery or the promise of a reward.”[54]

How Communities Can Use Human Rights to Advance the Right to Water

Set the stage for meaningful participation

  • Work with representative organizations to advocate for a First Nations water commission to monitor and evaluate government performance related to water and wastewater on First Nations, including specifically the outcomes related to government water and wastewater funding commitments. In its work, the commission should take into account Indigenous customs, laws, and practices.
  • Require government actors to recognize and engage the cultural aspects of water when calling on community input or participation so that communities and individuals can identify culturally acceptable sustainable water policy, and practical solutions on reserves.
  • Provide government actors with a set of lessons learned from past community engagement and failed funding commitments for water and wastewater systems to prevent replication of past failures.
  • Work closely with First Nations technical and community experts and ensure that new system designs allow for population growth, account for sustainable life-cycle costs, and are adaptable to decreased source water quality over time.
  • Identify within the community individuals who are most marginalized and unable to participate in community decision-making and actively create channels for their participation throughout any process. In particular, ensure women, persons with disabilities, and marginalized individuals have the opportunity to engage meaningfully. Present government authorities with clearly identified channels and plan for broad spectrum participation.

Use rights language to demand transparency and accountability

  • As a matter of human rights, seek to develop a plan with the federal government to address local water and sanitation crises with a concrete, collaborative plan. The plan should have:
    • Quantifiable targets;
    • Sufficient and consistent budget allocations;
    • A fixed timeframe for initial implementation;
    • Federal commitments for ongoing operation and maintenance support;
    • A time-bound commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories and reduce risk level of high-risk water and wastewater assets on reserves;
    • Specific recommendations, funding, and measures related to private or household-level water and wastewater systems; and,
    • Clear expectations for reporting back to the community progress towards the plan.
  • Develop a community-based assessment of water and wastewater assets annually to present to government actors and highlight where funding commitments are failing to keep pace with investment needs.
  • Demand that the federal government develop a fair, transparent process for determining financial support for water and wastewater systems on reserves, including a formula for calculating capital, operation, and maintenance funding levels.

Elevate community concerns to provincial, national, or international audiences

  • Some audiences can connect with communities in crisis better when they understand that there are human rights violations at stake. Being able to communicate community concerns via social media or traditional media outlets in human rights terms can often motivate new audiences to agitate officials to address the issue.
  • Particularly when there is an emergency, it can be important to seek outside audiences to amplify the message a community is trying to convey to federal or provincial officials. Human rights mechanisms within the United Nations can be a great way to do that. There are a number of independent human rights experts within the United Nations who can issue statements or letters to the Canadian government, including experts on the rights to water and sanitation, on environment and human rights, on rights of Indigenous peoples, and on extreme poverty and human rights. You can locate the relevant experts via this website: https://spinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/SpecialProceduresInternet/ViewA....
  • Other human rights mechanisms include committees that monitor Canada’s implementation of international human rights treaty obligations. Reporting human rights concerns to these committees can increase international and public scrutiny of Canada’s actions. These committees review Canada’s record on a set timeline, so advocacy with these committees are for protracted or neglected human rights issues or concerns. You can locate relevant committees, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Human Rights Committee, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and other important human rights treaty bodies highly relevant via this website: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/Pages/TreatyBodies.aspx.

Case Study: Flint, Michigan, USA

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, under state-appointed emergency management, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-savings measure. Residents immediately raised concerns about the water color, taste, and odor, and reported various health complaints including skin rashes. Bacteria, including E. coli, were detected in the distribution system.[55] At the same time the city stopped its corrosion control measures and added ferric chlorine to treat the water, increasing the corrosivity of the Flint River water and leaching lead into the water supply.[56] A team of researchers led by a local pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, found that the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood doubled—and in some neighborhoods tripled—after the switch in the water supply.[57].

Public outrage eventually pushed President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency in 2016,[58] but the damage to people’s health was done. Lead can have devasting health impacts.[59] There is no safe level of lead exposure, and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable.[60]  

Community members started to raise concerns with local officials in early 2015.[61] The full story of what officials knew and when they knew it is unfolding, with 15 people in state and local government charged with crimes as of June 2019.[62]

When government officials were not responsive, communities engaged in their own documentation of the severity of the violation of the right to water and turned to United Nations independent human rights experts on hazardous substances and wastes, health, water and sanitation, Indigenous peoples, minorities, and racism to amplify their call for action.[63] These experts highlighted that the Flint crisis was not just a public health concern, but a human rights disaster. These experts timed their statement to coincide with national presidential debates to raise the profile of the issue as a human rights concern.[64]

While the struggle for accountability for the Flint crisis is still winding through the US courts and the replacement of lead pipes continues, the activists who worked hard to link the Flint water crisis with human rights successfully added international attention and pressure on state and local officials.



[1] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 1.

[2] “What are Human Rights?” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/WhatareHumanRights.aspx.

[3] Chiefs of Ontario, “Great Lakes as Living Entities,” Resolution 26/19, June 2019.

[4] New Zealand Parliament, “Innovative bill protects Whanganui River with legal personhood,” March 28, 2017, https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/innovative-bill-protects-whanganui-river-with-legal-personhood/ (accessed October 3, 2019). For an in-depth look at the beauty and importance of the Whanganui River, see Kennedy Warne, “A Voice for Nature,” National Geographic, April 24, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/04/maori-river-in-new-zealand-is-a-legal-person/ (accessed October 3, 2019).

[5] Corte Suprema de Justicia [C.S.J.] [Supreme Court], Sala Cas. Civ. 4 de abril de 2018. M.P.: Luis Armando Tolosa Villabona, STC4360-2018 (Colombia), para. 12, http://www.cortesuprema.gov.co/corte/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/STC4360-2018-2018-00319-011.pdf (accessed October 3, 2019) (citing Corte Constitucional [C.C.] [Constitutional Court], 10 de noviembre de 2016, Sentencia T-622/16 (Colombia), http://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/relatoria/2016/t-622-16.htm (accessed October 3, 2019)).

[6] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976, ratified by Canada 1976; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted December 18, 1979, G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force September 3, 1981, ratified by Canada 1981; Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, ratified by Canada 1991; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 99 U.N.T.S., entered into force March 23, 1976; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted December 13, 2006, G.A. Res. 61/106, Annex I, U.N. GAOR, 61st Sess., Supp. (No. 49) at 65, U.N. Doc. A/61/49 (2006), entered into force May 3, 2008, ratified by Canada 2010.

[7] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted September 13, 2007, G.A. Res. 61/295, U.N. Doc. A/61/L.67 and Add.1 (2007), para. 25, 32, www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf (accessed February 14, 2015). Canada issued a statement formally supporting the UNDRIP three years after voting against its passage in September 2007 at the UN General Assembly. See Canada's Statement of Support on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, November 12, 2010, http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1309374239861/1309374546142 (accessed May 25, 2016). On May 9, 2016, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced it officially removed its objector status to the declaration. Tim Fontaine, “Canada officially adopts UN declaration on rights of Indigenous Peoples,” CBC News, May 10, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/canada-adopting-implementing-un-rights... (accessed May 12, 2016).

[8] UNDRIP, arts. 32 and 25.

[9] See, for example, UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), Concluding observations: Canada, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/CAN/CO/8-9, November 25, 2016, paras. 28, 47(b), https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N16/402/03/PDF/N1640203.pd... (accessed October 3, 2019); CEDAW Committee,

 Concluding observations: Canada, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/CAN/CO/7, November 7, 2008, para. 43, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?sy... (accessed May 25, 2016), paras. 43-44; UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations: Canada, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/CAN/CO/4, E/C.12/CAN/CO/5, May 22, 2006, paras. 43-44, http://www.refworld.org/publisher,CESCR,CONCOBSERVATIONS,CAN,45377fa30,0... (accessed May 25, 2016).

[10] UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations, Canada, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/CAN/CO/6, March 4, 2016, paras. 43-44.

[11] UN General Assembly, “The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation,” Resolution 70/169, U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/169/ (February 22, 2016).

[12] Ibid. See also, UN Human Rights Council resolution 15/9 of September 2010, Resolution 16/2 of March 2011, Resolution 18/1 of September 2011 and Resolution 21/2 of September 2012.

[13] The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the UN body responsible for monitoring compliance with the ICESCR. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 15, The Right to Water, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2002/11(2003), para. 12(b).

[14] Ibid., para. 44(c).

[15] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, UN Doc. A/HRC/27/55, June 30, 2014, para. 53.

[16] Ibid., para. 85.

[17] UN General Assembly, The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Resolution 70/169, U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/169, December 17, 2015.

[18] Ibid. See also, UN Human Rights Council resolution 15/9 of September 2010, resolution 16/2 of March 2011, resolution 18/1 of September 2011 and resolution 21/2 of September 2012.

[19] UN General Assembly, Report of the independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, UN Doc. A/HRC/12/24, July 1, 2009, para. 64; see also UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on the Right to Sanitation, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2010/1, November 19, 2010.

[20] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A(III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948), art. 25; ICESCR, art. 12; Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 24.

[21] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14: The right to the highest attainable standard of health, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2000/4 (2000), para. 15.

[22] ICESCR, art 12; CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 15.

[23] CESCR General Comment No. 15, para. 8; see also CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 15. Similarly, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has concluded, “Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation are essential for the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights,” including the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 15 on the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/GC/15 (2013), para. 48.

[24] CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 52.

[25] UDHR, art. 25; ICESCR, art. 11(1).

[26] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 4, The Right to Adequate Housing, U.N. Doc. E/1992/23 (1992), para. 8(b).

[27] Ibid., para. 11.

[28] CESCR General Comment No. 20, para. 37.

[29] CESCR General Comment No. 15, para. 48. See also UN Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters art. 5(1)(c), June 25, 1998 (requiring immediate dissemination to potentially affected communities of all information that could enable the public to take measures to prevent or mitigate harm arising from environmental threats). See CESCR General Comment No. 15, para.12(c)(iv); OHCHR, “The Right to Water: Fact Sheet No. 35,” August 2010, https://www.refworld.org/docid/4ca45fed2.html; UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, U.N. Doc. A/73/162, July 16, 2018, paras. 8, 49-53 (noting the need for “spaces for participation, transparency, access to information, monitoring, assessment and oversight of progress or possible setbacks in the realization of the rights, as well as enforcement mechanisms”); UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, U.N. Doc. A/69/213, July 31, 2014, paras. 27 and 29 (listing access to information as a criterion for active, free and meaningful participation).

[30] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, paras. 9 - 17 (describing the legal basis of the right to participation).

[31] See UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes, Baskut Tuncak, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/30/40, July 8, 2015, para. 22 (noting that the right is derived from the right freedom of expression and the right to take part in public affairs, and encompasses “the right of individuals to request and receive information of public interest and information concerning themselves that may affect their individual rights”).

[32] Ibid., para. 33.

[33] Ibid., para. 34.

[34] Ibid., para. 35.

[35] Ibid., para. 36.

[36] Ibid., para. 37.

[37] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, para 29. 

[38] See CESCR General Comment No. 15, para. 48; UN Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Common Violations of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/27/55. June 30, 2014, para. 68 (stating that violations of the right to participate can occur through “failure to take reasonable steps to facilitate participation, including by ensuring the right to access to information” and noting that the procedural dimension of the right to water stems from the right to participate in public affairs as guaranteed by ICCPR, art. 25(a)).

[39] See United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[40] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, para. 2.

[41] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, paras. 18–31. (defining “active, free and meaningful” as requiring the following steps: involving people in the terms of engagement; creating opportunities for participation from the beginning of deliberations; eliminating all barriers to accessing deliberative processes; free and safe participation without coercion, inducement, reprisals, or discrimination; access to information; ensuring people’s views are considered and are able to influence the decision; requiring more than simply obtaining consent). See also Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Common Violations of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, paras. 68-69 (supporting the concept of “meaningful engagement” established in Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road, Bera Township and 197 Main Street, Johannesburg v. City of Johannesburg, [2008] ZACCT 1, paras. 18, 21 (S. Afr.)). See also Inga Winkler, The Human Right to Water: Significance, Legal Status and Implications for Water Allocation (Portland: Hart Publishing, 2012), p. 220 (participation requires that “the specific decisions regarding water allocation within that framework are taken by including all relevant stakeholders”).

[42] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, para. 18.

[43] Ibid., para. 21.

[44] Ibid., para. 19.

[45] Ibid., paras. 62-63 (citing the example of Kenyan residents in Kayole-Soweto who were successful in negotiating a policy of spreading payment for water connection over two years).

[46] Ibid., para. 67.

[47] Ibid., para. 30.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., para. 22.

[50] Ibid., para. 37.

[51] Ibid., para. 38.

[52] Ibid., para. 23.

[53] Ibid., para. 25.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Jenny LaChance, Dr. Richard Casey Sadler, and Dr. Allison Champney Schnepp, “Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: a spatial analysis of risk and public health response,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 2 (2016): 283-290, accessed October 3, 2019, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003.

[56] David C. Bellinger, “Lead contamination in Flint—an abject failure to protect public health,” New England Journal of Medicine 374, no. 12 (2016): 1101-1103, accessed October 3, 2019, doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1601013.

[57] Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Ben Tinker, and Tim Hume, “‘Our Mouths Were Ajar’: Doctor’s Fight to Expose Flint’s Water Crisis,” CNN, January 22, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/21/health/flint-water-mona-hanna-attish/ (accessed October 3, 2019).

[58] Paul Egan and Todd Spangler, “President Obama Declares Emergency in Flint,” Detroit Free Press, January 16, 2016, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2016/01/16/president-oba... (accessed October 3, 2019).

[59] “Lead poisoning and health,” World Health Organization, August 23, 2018, https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-h... (accessed October 3, 2019).

[60] “Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention: At-Risk Populations,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 30, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/populations.htm (accessed October 3, 2019).

[61] Don Hopey, “Flint water crisis timeline,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 12, 2018, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2018/10/21/Flint-water-crisis-t... (accessed October 3, 2019).

[62] Mitch Smith, “Flint Water Prosecutors Seize Former Michigan Governor’s Cellphone,” New York Times, June 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/us/rick-snyder-flint-water-crisis.html (accessed October 3, 2019).

[63] Flint: Fundamentally about human rights – UN experts underline,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner press release, Geneva, March 3, 2016, https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=17139&... (accessed October 3, 2019).

[64] Ibid.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

I met “David” and his brothers in the dusty township of Chowa in Kabwe. David, eight years old, is thin and small for his age. Sitting in their yard, his grandfather described his worries about David.

He has problems in school, finding it hard to retain information. He also has stomach aches and can’t see very well, possible lead poisoning symptoms.

A few years ago, David was found to have extremely high amounts of lead in his blood – high enough to warrant immediate treatment. But he never received any medical care.

Kabwe’s mine dates to the colonial period: a British company opened the lead mine in 1904. The South African company Anglo American took over in 1925 and remained in charge for nearly half a century.

Early on, doctors’ certificates revealed that lead smelter workers suffered health effects, but the company continued to mine, smelt, and poison the environment.

Zambia later nationalised the mine, then closed it in 1994. But there was no comprehensive clean-up.

And so, 25 years later, homes, schools, and play areas are contaminated with lead dust. Medical studies confirm that children living nearby have extremely high lead levels in their blood. Five micrograms of lead per decilitre (µg/dL) are considered elevated, and treatment is advised for severe lead poisoning cases of 45 µg/dL.

In Kabwe’s affected areas, about half the children have 45 µg/dL or more and need medical treatment. Lead can cause stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, coma, convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable.

When Human Rights Watch visited Kabwe in 2018, public health facilities had no lead testing kits or medicine. Many residents said they felt fearful and helpless.

The Zambian government has recently begun the initial steps of a World Bank-funded programme to clean up neighbourhoods and provide health care for lead exposure in Kabwe. But the clean-up is so limited in scope that it risks being a failure. 
The government has trained a group of health workers, and procured medicine.  It says that 10, 000 children and pregnant women will soon be tested and treated, and that homes and 10 schools in areas near the mine will be cleaned up. These measures could bring some relief to David’s family.

But the road ahead is long. The programme to tackle lead pollution in Kabwe officially started in December 2016, nearly three years ago. It got off to a very slow start.

Many local residents and community leaders feel left in the dark and are sceptical that the situation will improve. The Zambian government is also haunted by the failures of a previous programme a decade ago. In the coming months, it will need to deliver.

The government also needs to do a better job of informing the local population. When I spoke to residents and community leaders in Kabwe’s lead-polluted areas in November 2018, they said they had no information about the World Bank-funded effort. It is encouraging that in recent weeks, the government has finally started to provide some.

The biggest problem may be that the government will not pave the dirt roads that spread the dust in affected areas, nor  clean up the source of the contamination, the former mine itself.

More than six million tons of mining waste are out in the open, and dust blows over nearby residential areas. The most visible is known as the “Black Mountain” – schoolboys go there to slide down the hill for fun, unaware of the risks.

The Ministry of Mines has issued mining licences for the former mine area, rather than conducting a proper land restoration effort. Ongoing small-scale mining poses serious health risks for workers and the community.

In addition, the South African company Jubilee Metals is planning to reprocess the waste to recover more minerals, such as lead, zinc, and vanadium.

Their plans need to undergo stringent government oversight to avoid further harm to people and the environment, including a requirement for a sound environmental and social impact assessment before starting operations.

Indeed, such a process will be a litmus test for the government’s self-declared goal of enhancing environmental governance and compliance.

For children like David and thousands of others, the neighbourhood clean-up needs to be lasting and comprehensive – which means that it needs to include the roads and the former mine.

To save children in Kabwe from further lead poisoning, the government needs to ramp up its efforts – and donors should provide additional support.

International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which starts on October 20, is an excellent moment to come together around this goal.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Golfrid Siregar, an environmental lawyer, died on October 6, 2019, three days after his unconscious body was found in Medan, North Sumatra.  


© Roy Lumbangaol/Walhi
(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should immediately and impartially investigate the death of an environmental lawyer, Golfrid Siregar, in Medan, North Sumatra, Human Rights Watch said today.

After midnight on October 3, 2019, a pedicab driver found Siregar unconscious and seriously injured on a street in Medan, the provincial capital, and took him to a local hospital. He never regained consciousness and died on October 6. He had suffered multiple injuries and his wallet and other personal effects were missing.

“Golfrid Siregar was an environmental lawyer and grassroots activist who had dedicated his life to protecting Sumatra’s rainforests and helping villagers protect their land,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher. “His death under suspicious circumstances demands a prompt, thorough investigation of all those implicated.”

Siregar, 34, represented the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, or Walhi), Indonesia’s largest environmental group, in a lawsuit against North Sumatra’s governor over his 2017 approval for the construction of the US$1.5 billion Batang Toru hydroelectric dam. Walhi had argued that the permit issuance process was problematic and was appealing two earlier court verdicts they had lost. He had also sought legal action against the police in a related matter for their alleged failure to adequately respond to a complaint.

On the evening of October 2, Siregar had visited his uncle’s house in Medan, playing board games and having tea, his relatives said. He left by motorcycle at about 11 p.m. to return home. The hospital CCTV shows the pedicab driver who brought Siregar’s unconscious body into the hospital at 1:12 a.m. on October 3. The driver and two people who accompanied him left two minutes later, the police said.

The police later reported that Siregar’s laptop, wallet, ID card, cell phone, and wedding ring were missing, making it more difficult to locate his family. Walhi’s North Sumatra director told the media that Siregar had serious head injuries, swelling in the right eye, and a blue mark, probably internal bruising, on his left hand.

At 11 a.m. on October 3, after locating his motorcycle, the hospital, with police assistance, called Siregar’s family. Surgeons operated later that day and removed a portion of his skull to relieve pressure on the brain.

He died on October 6, leaving his wife, Resmi Barimbing, and their baby daughter, Velycia.

The local police precinct initially claimed that Siregar was injured in a traffic accident. But his family and Walhi have raised concerns that  Siregar was murdered: his motorcycle was not damaged and did not have any asphalt marks. His legs and hands did not have any cuts or wounds typical in traffic accidents. His uncle said Siregar only drank “bottled tea” that evening.

North Sumatra police told journalists they are now conducting an autopsy. On October 10, the police arrested the pedicab driver and the other two men for robbery, for allegedly taking Siregar’s possessions after the traffic accident.

Walhi colleagues said that Siregar had received several threats since they had filed the lawsuit against the Batang Toru dam construction in August 2018 although the threats had probably stopped over the last four to six weeks. Siregar was also taking part in a legal case concerning an alleged forged signature in the Batang Toru dam’s environmental assessment report. He was also involved in other controversial North Sumatra litigation, defending villagers against a concrete company in Siantar, helping villagers in Karo regency over illegal logging, and assisting fishermen in Pantau Labu contesting a sand company.

“The nature of Siregar’s death and the threats he received raise numerous alarm bells,” Harsono said. “All those concerned about Indonesia’s environment will be watching the authorities to ensure that a credible investigation occurs and that any crime associated with his death is appropriately prosecuted.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to provide a submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on children’s right to a healthy environment, in advance of its 2020 annual full-day meeting on the same topic.

The impact of environmental degradation and pollution on children’s rights (question 1)

For over a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented how governments have failed to protect children from environmental harm.

Exposure to toxic substances

Human Rights Watch has documented children’s exposure to hazardous substances in many contexts. Around the world, children are exposed to hazardous substances while playing, bathing, going to school, eating, drinking, or working. Many hazardous substances have particularly harmful consequences for children, whose developing bodies absorb them more readily than those of adults and are especially vulnerable to certain toxins, leading in some cases to irreversible long-term damage, disability, or even death.

Children’s exposure as result of business activity

Business activity has been the source of significant environmental damage that harms children through pollution of air, soil or water, and other pathways of exposure. Governments often fail to regulate companies sufficiently. For example, children living near or working in leather tanneries in Bangladesh have been exposed to chemicals that flowed off tannery floors into open gutters of nearby streets, and had severe health problems as a result. Smelters or battery factories have caused lead poisoning in children in China and Kenya; yet, protests by parents have sometimes been met with government repression. In agriculture, children have been exposed to harmful fertilizers and pesticides in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, the United States, and Israel/Palestine.

Children’s health has also been severely affected by exposure to chemicals from large-scale and small-scale mining operations. In Zambia and Kosovo, children living near former industrial lead mines have suffered from lead poisoning as a result, and in some cases died. In small-scale gold mining regions in Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, the Philippines, and elsewhere, children have been exposed to toxic mercury used to process gold, and in some cases developed symptoms that are consistent with mercury poisoning. And in one of the worst environmental health disasters in recent years, over 400 children died in Nigeria in 2010 from exposure to lead-contaminated dust produced inadvertently during artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Hazardous substances in water supply systems

In several countries that Human Rights Watch investigated, governments have failed to protect children from hazardous chemicals in the soil, groundwater, or water supply system. In Bangladesh, millions of children have been exposed to harmful arsenic via well water. In Canada, Indigenous communities have been exposed to water containing naturally occurring uranium, E.coli, or coliform, as a result of systemic water and wastewater challenges facing First Nations, including lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves. In Harare, Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found that children were at risk of contracting dangerous waterborne diarrheal diseases as they were drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage. In Basra, Iraq, government failure to ensure sufficient safe drinking water has resulted in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital in 2018, and that has not been solved. 

Climate change

Human Rights Watch has documented government failures to address climate change, its impact on the realization of children’s rights, as well as human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation—two drivers of climate change.

Child rights impacts of climate change

Government inaction on climate change impacts children’s rights to life, water, food, and health. Children from Indigenous communities are often particularly vulnerable to climatic changes because their culture and livelihood is tied to their land, and such marginalized groups typically lack the resources and government support to adapt to climate change impacts.

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found that climate change has limited local Indigenous communities’ access to food and clean water and contributed to children’s ill-health. Girls often have to walk long distances to find water, exposing them to dangers along the route and leaving them with less time to attend school or rest. In Bangladesh, families have arranged child marriages for their daughters under 18 in part because of extreme poverty, compounded by natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In Brazil, where climate change is likely to increase the spread of mosquitos carrying vector-borne diseases, the government has responded inadequately to the outbreak of the Zika virus. 

Coal mining and deforestation

Children have suffered serious human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation. In the United States, the government has failed to mitigate health risks associated with mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining, by protecting streams from mining pollution. In South Africa, coal mines and coal-fired power plants have contributed to air pollution that threatens the health of local communities, particularly children. In Malawi, residents living near coal mines have faced forced resettlement and harmful impacts on their livelihood; health information about coal mines has been kept secret. In Brazil, the government has largely failed to act against criminal networks responsible for deforestation, including forest fires. Deforestation robs Indigenous peoples and local communities of their livelihood and the forest fires can cause serious health issues among children. In Indonesia, Indigenous peoples have lost ancestral forests to oil palm plantations, resulting in violations of their rights to livelihood, food, water, and culture.

Inadequate regulation of the coal industry and the failure to prevent deforestation risk undermining government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby further threatening the realization of children’s rights.

Examples of good practice towards ensuring children’s rights to a healthy environment, including child participation (questions 2 and 5)

Human Rights Watch has come across initiatives that appear promising. Here are some examples:

  • The recent youth movement for climate activism has managed to shift the debate over climate change in many countries. For example, in Germany, it helped push the government to decide upon a series of mitigation measures.
  • In the Philippines, the government launched an initiative to withdraw child laborers between the ages of 15 and 17 from small-scale gold mining and offered them vocational training in the tourism sector. The government, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) partner also set up a mercury-free and child labor-free gold mining operation called “Compassionate Gold.”  
  • In Zambia, a local NGO supported the creation of youth groups and school youth clubs that inform residents about environmental risks and have participated in a home remediation program that served as pilot for a larger World Bank program. The youth group is also regularly on the radio and has engaged with local officials over pollution concerns.

Laws and other measures to ensure companies do not harm the environment or contribute to child rights abuse—as well as challenges in this regard (questions 3 and 4)


  • Due diligence laws: France has adopted a law requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, including children’s environmental health rights. The Netherlands in 2019 passed a law for child labor due diligence, which has the potential to protect children from child labor-related toxic exposures.
  • Challenge: Most countries do not have mandatory human rights due diligence laws
  • Access to information laws: In 2017, Malawi adopted a law that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results. In the Philippines, a newspaper has used a freedom of information law to obtain publication of a government report on mercury poisoning of local communities at a former mercury mine site.
  • Challenge: Some countries lack functioning freedom of information laws; some do not have any such laws altogether.
  • Court action: In a Chile court case over air pollution, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had neglected the health and well-being of the region’s residents for years, resulting in violations of people’s rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment. A court in Thailand has ruled that the company responsible for lead pollution in Klity Creek has to pay for its cleanup. The country’s Supreme Administrative Court has also ordered the government’s Pollution Control Department to pay approximately US$125,000 in compensation to plaintiffs affected by the toxic legacy.
  • Challenge: Some court rulings remain unenforced.
  • Government regulation of businesses: Laws in the United States require high-risk industries to provide financial assurances to ensure they have the resources to clean up potential pollution. Brazil has prohibited all work by children in tobacco, largely because of the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, and established penalties for farmers and companies purchasing the tobacco, creating an incentive for the tobacco industry to ensure that children are not working on farms in their supply chains.
  • Challenge: Government regulation is very lax in many countries and sectors. One example is that the US default body weight for regulating drinking water contaminant levels is 80 kilograms, the mean adult weight. Regulations should be set to ensure drinking water is safe for babies.
  • Close coordination of institutions dealing with child rights, labor rights, environment, health, and business when formulating policies: A recent ILO project on child labor in small-scale gold mining brought actors from these different spheres together and facilitated coordination this way.
  • Challenge: There is frequently a lack of coordination among UN agencies dealing with environment or child rights, as well as among agencies and ministries on the national level. As a result, laws and policies on the environment do not always consider child rights, and vice versa.

Monitoring of environmental risks to children (question 6)

In the countries where Human Rights Watch has done research, we found that environmental risks to children are being poorly monitored at the national level. This is particularly concerning because health effects may not be manifest for years after exposure, or exposure to carcinogens or climate change occurs slowly. Accountability can also be hampered by the lack of solid data.

Recommendations to States:

  • States should review their environmental laws, standards, policies and programs to determine if they reflect their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and take into account the ways in which children are more susceptible to environmental harm, and amend (if necessary), implement and enforce them.
  • States should strengthen childhood exposure-monitoring efforts, particularly for those living in extreme poverty or in low-income, minority, indigenous, stateless, migrant, or refugee communities. States should also establish population-based surveillance systems for adverse health impacts linked to the environment and strengthen regulatory agencies and ministries responsible for the oversight of standards relevant to children’s rights, such as health, consumer protection, education, environment, food, and labor. (See similar recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.)
  • States should publish and disseminate disaggregated information on the result of monitoring and surveillance, and develop tailored environmental education and information programs.
  • States should ensure that businesses respect the rights of the child in the environmental context and comply with the General Comment 16 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

States should make the necessary arrangements to facilitate public participation in decision-making on the environment, with a particular emphasis on ensuring meaningful participation of children.            

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the Coal Combustion Residual Rule.

My name is Sarah Saadoun and I’m a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a non-profit independent organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in 90 countries around the world, including the United States.

I plan to submit a more detailed written submission, so I’d like to use this time to highlight a few points.

Every person has the right to safe water and an environment that does not harm their health. Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect these rights, including by regulating business activity to prevent pollution that poses an unacceptable level of public health risk. Moreover, a necessary component of any policy framework that aims to adequately protect the right to water is that existing protections should not be removed or weakened without careful consideration and a showing that full use is being made of all available resources.

We strongly oppose the EPA’s proposed changes to the coal ash rule as a step backward that threatens the water, air, and health of people living near coal ash piles.

In fact, according to the EPA, it is proposing change to the rule regarding coal ash piles “in response to the May 2017 petitions from AES Puerto Rico LP and Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group,” an industry trade group. AES is a Virginia-based company operating a coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that is the site of a nearly half-million-ton coal ash pile. AES testing found that the coal ash is leaching arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and lithium into the groundwater—all but arsenic at levels above what the EPA considers to be safe. Test results from the following year showed that levels of all but lithium had increased. The groundwater forms a part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for thousands of residents.

Moreover, residential areas near the plant are exposed to fugitive dust from the coal ash pile. Studies have shown air pollution from coal ash to be a significant health concern. For example, a study by two University of Louisville scientists found that children living near a coal ash landfill—which presumably has less impact than an uncontained coal ash pile—in Louisville, KY were significantly more likely to have health and behavioral problems than those in a comparison group, even after controlling for age, gender, and second-hand smoke exposure. An ongoing study of the same Louisville community found coal ash containing toxic metals in two-thirds of the 162 homes tested, all of which had children living there.

Studies conducted by public health scientists from University of Puerto Rico have documented a worrisome trend of increased incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases in Guayama in recent years.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 were a blunt reminder that the more frequent and heavier storms due to climate change exacerbate the threat piles of toxic waste pose to public health.

In light of all this, the EPA should be redoubling its efforts to ensure AES meticulously complies with its obligation to remediate, monitor, and prevent pollution. Instead, it appears to be weakening these rules at AES’ behest.

The EPA is proposing to subject coal ash piles located on a utility site to the same rules as coal ash already delivered for beneficial reuse. But to do so would effectively mean that a half-million-ton coal ash pile, which has already been shown to be dangerously contaminating groundwater, would be subject to the same minimal environmental requirements as a small, temporary pile of coal ash awaiting reuse.

The EPA’s original justification for distinguishing between “on-site” and “off-site” coal ash piles was to address precisely situations like this one: coal ash is typically stored in greater quantities at a utility site and its presence is permanent, even if there is a constant cycle of removing and adding coal ash to the pile. Not only does the proposed change fail to address this problem, it specifically opts not to place limits on what qualifies as “temporary” coal ash storage, rather than permanent disposal. Even as AES’ efforts to sell its coal ash have faltered, and the vast majority will almost certainly remain in place, the efforts themselves may be sufficient for the utility to claim that its pile should be regulated as storage.

In other words, the proposal seems to be tailor-made to allow AES to avoid properly managing the environmental impacts of its coal ash. To allow it to do so not only endangers the health of Guayamans, but of all people living near coal ash sites. What’s to stop other utilities from taking advantage of the loophole EPA is proposing to create?

We urge the EPA to protect and maintain a strong coal ash rule that protects people’s rights to clean air, water, and health.



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Roxanne Moonias, mother to an infant with a chronic illness, demonstrates one of the steps she takes to ensure her baby is not exposed to contaminants in the water. Roxanne lives in Neskantaga First Nation and says that it takes her an hour each time to properly wash and rinse his bottles. 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch
(Toronto) – The next Canadian government needs to compensate Neskantaga First Nation for the costs associated with evacuating the community after a water infrastructure failure, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also have a mechanism to deal with major infrastructure failures in remote First Nations communities.

On September 12, 2019, the water pump at the community’s water treatment facility failed, leaving some homes completely without running water and others with water that was not safe to use except to flush toilets. The remote community – only accessible by plane or winter roads – declared a state of emergency on September 14 and began evacuation by air of the majority of community members to Thunder Bay, including chronically ill adults and infants. Indigenous Services Canada refused to provide evacuation assistance at the time.

“Facing a potential human rights and health crisis after a water pump failure, the Chief and Council were left to act alone to protect the health and safety of their community,” said Amanda Klasing, water expert at Human Rights Watch. “The government failed to help the people of Neskantaga, and they should not be on the hook for the cost of dealing with this crisis.”

Indigenous Services Canada denied the community evacuation assistance when the pump failed, claiming that it would be a quick repair and there was no immediate health or safety risk. Chief Chris Moonias disputed that finding, saying that providing bottled water in the interim was insufficient to address the community’s health and safety needs.

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said that Indigenous Services Canada officials told Neskantaga that no precedent or policy existed to provide evacuation or other forms of assistance to remote communities affected by a major infrastructure failure. The cost to the community of dealing with the evacuation alone puts it at risk of losing control of its finances.

A pump was flown in from southern Ontario, and water tests conducted on September 18 and 19 were sufficient to lift the do-not-consume warning. Members began returning on September 23.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the impact of serious and prolonged drinking water and sanitation problems for thousands of First Nations people – indigenous peoples in Canada – living on reserves. The findings detailed problems with safe water and sanitation on reserves, including a lack of binding water quality regulations, insufficient funding, faulty or substandard infrastructure, and degraded source waters. The federal government’s own audits over two decades show a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation on reserves.

Human Rights Watch research focused on the unique human rights challenges faced by Neskantaga First Nation, which has operated under a boil-water advisory for nearly 25 years. Situated on the banks of Attawapiskat Lake in Northern Ontario, Neskantaga First Nation is a remote Oji-Cree community of approximately 300 registered members. Its main settlement, previously known as Lansdowne House, was relocated beginning in the 1980s, with the promise of better services, including housing, water, and sanitation.

The community’s water system, funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, an agency that has since been divided and renamed, was built in 1991. The system that was designed never met the needs of the community in practice. A “boil water” advisory put in place in 1995 has remained in effect ever since. The community requested a new plant, but it was only years later, in 2017, that the federal government finally secured funding. The intended completion date was 2018, but construction has been beset by delays and, in early 2019, the community fired the contractors. With a new contractor, Neskantaga’s new water treatment facility will not be operational until the end of October or November, according to officials who have spoken with the contractors. Meanwhile, Neskantaga remains dependent on the old system, which includes a machine that refills bottles with water for drinking but is difficult to use.

The community cannot pay for the emergency action from its budget without putting it at risk of default status with Indigenous Services Canada and placement into third-party funding agreement management, and loss of budget control.

“In the absence of policy guidance from Indigenous Services Canada, First Nations leaders should not be punished when they act quickly to avert a potential human rights and public health crisis,” Klasing said. “Such action creates an incentive to sacrifice community health and safety to avoid financial risk.”

Since 2015, Canadian officials have worked to eliminate drinking water advisories in First Nations reserves, lifting 87 long-term advisories through dedicated investments. However, at least 56 drinking water advisories remain in place and the underlying systemic water and wastewater problems facing First Nations in Canada remain, including a lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves.

Parliament passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (SDWFA), which entered into force in November 2013, and called for regulations. In December 2015, a special Assembly of Chiefs sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution on safe drinking water for First Nations, which declared that the act “was developed without meaningful consultation with First Nations, is contrary to inherent authority of First Nation governments and does not reflect the principles of Customary Laws regarding water.” The resolution called for the repeal of the act. It reiterated the call for repeal in 2017 and called for the federal government to develop in partnership with First Nations the next steps in engaging with the SDWFA.

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Among other obligations to guarantee the right to water, Canada should ensure a continuous water supply for drinking, personal sanitation, washing clothes, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene. Canada also has an obligation to ensure that First Nations have the resources to design, deliver, and control their water access.

The Canadian government is aware of the condition of water infrastructure on First Nations reserves and should have contingency plans for major infrastructure failure, particularly in remote, fly-in communities. These plans should define roles and responsibilities around decision-making on possible evacuations or other extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of community members.

In the absence of these procedures, the government should recognize the urgent dilemma faced by Neskantaga leaders when faced with a pump failure and potential liability for the resulting harm to health and human rights. Neskantaga should not have to bear the financial brunt for an infrastructure failure, and Indigenous Services Canada should work swiftly to compensate the community for the cost of evacuation, Human Rights Watch said.

“The federal government was unprepared to act to prevent serious harm from a failed water system, but that is no excuse to financially penalize Neskantaga leaders and community members for prioritizing their own health, safety and rights,” Klasing said. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Brazilians who defend the Amazon are facing threats and attacks from criminal networks engaged in illegal logging. The situation is only getting worse under President Bolsonaro, whose assault on the country’s environmental agencies is putting the rainforest and the people who live there at much greater risk.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons

Sylvia remembers the first time a government official came to speak to her community in Lephalale, in the Limpopo province, about the construction of a new coal power plant. Like many other community members, she hoped that the plant would bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to her family.  

What she did not anticipate then was how the plant would further pollute the air and water in the area, putting her family’s health at risk. Her husband suffers from severe asthma that he believes is a result of the air pollution in the area and that makes it impossible for him to apply for jobs at the coal power plant.

ESKOM, the government-owned power utility is currently operating two coal power plants in Limpopo and an independent power producer has applied for a licence to build a third one. Last year ESKOM itself estimated that air pollution from 13 plants across the country is causing more than 300 premature deaths per year.

As governments, businesses and civil society converge on New York to attend the UN Climate Summit on September 23, they should be reflecting on the local and global impacts that government action or inaction on climate change will have on people like Sylvia.

Coal power plants, in addition to polluting the areas around them, are among the major contributors to global climate change, and in South Africa, coal-fired power stations are responsible for almost half of its carbon emissions. South Africa has already warmed at a rate twice the global average, and climate change is making droughts in South Africa more extreme and more frequent. Over the past few years, the recurring and worsening droughts in Limpopo resulted in severe water shortages, driving up the food prices and leaving residents like Sylvia without tap water.

Under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which South Africa is a party to, governments committed to significantly reduce their carbon emissions by phasing out fossil fuels—without doubt a challenging task for South Africa, given that 90 percent of energy is still produced from coal.

In its 2018 Draft Integrated Resource Plan the government committed to reducing South Africa’s reliance on coal for energy to less than 20 percent by 2050.  However, investments in coal continue, including for export, and research suggests that South Africa will not meet its  targets for reducing carbon emissions  in 2030 under its current policies. A recently filed lawsuit contends that that the government’s failure to reduce the deadly levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area is a violation of residents’ right to a healthy environment.

South Africa is not alone in its half-hearted approach to reducing emissions and regulating the coal industry. A new report by the UN human rights expert on the environment found that governments around the world, including those industrialized countries historically most responsible for the climate crisis, continue to support and subsidize investment in fossil fuels or other climate-harming activities—without regard to the local and global impacts  on the most marginalized communities.

In the United States, the Trump administration is rolling back regulations on coal mining, despite the dangers to the health of some of the poorest people  in the United States. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has undercut the environmental agencies responsible for protecting the country’s rainforest and effectively given a green light to illegal logging in the Amazon.

The urgency of the climate crisis is clear in a growing number of communities in South Africa and around the globe, particularly amongst those more marginalized and least able to adapt. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly made clear, failure by governments to drastically reduce their carbon emissions will result in an increase in food insecurity, diseases carried by insects, and other serious health problems.  

The Climate Summit in New York will bring a welcomed opportunity to focus on what governments need to do if they are serious about climate change. On September 9, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked governments to “contribute the strongest possible action to prevent climate change, and to promote the resilience and rights of [their] people”. They should listen to diverse voices from all parts of the world who can bear witness to the devastation already being wrought by climate change.  

But environmental and human rights groups can also use their combined expertise to push for progress curbing the effects of climate change, including by identifying solutions that have proven effective and that respect human rights to address climate change. Climate change activists and Indigenous peoples have long been fighting for climate justice. Human rights groups, including my own organization, Human Rights Watch, joined them more recently. Global and local groups working together, combining their skills and experience, can help ensure accountability in the fight against the climate crisis, locally and globally.

An important step in that direction will be the Peoples’ Summit, a global civil society gathering in New York. Environmental and human rights groups will meet ahead of the UN Climate Summit to strategize how they can work together most effectively, using the human rights framework to strengthen climate action and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities.

There are already some good examples of that at the local level. In Limpopo, environmental justice groups are challenging the construction of the new coal power plant based on its local and global climate change impacts, affecting the livelihoods of marginalized populations. Sylvia co-founded an organization that is advocating to protect the health of women in her community from the impacts of coal power plants in Lephalale.

At the UN Climate Summit in New York, civil society groups should amplify these efforts in the international arena by pushing political leaders to take urgent and ambitious action on climate change that is necessary if they are to meet their obligations to protect the human rights of their people.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself.

(São Paulo) – Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

The 165-page report, “Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon,” documents how illegal logging by criminal networks and resulting forest fires are connected to acts of violence and intimidation against forest defenders and the state’s failure to investigate and prosecute these crimes. 

“Brazilians who defend the Amazon are facing threats and attacks from criminal networks engaged in illegal logging,” said Daniel Wilkinson, acting environment and human rights director at Human Right Watch. “The situation is only getting worse under President Bolsonaro, whose assault on the country’s environmental agencies is putting the rainforest and the people who live there at much greater risk.”

Cláudio José da Silva is the coordinator of the “Forest Guardians” of Caru Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian Amazon. The Guardians patrol indigenous land to detect illegal logging and report it to the authorities.

© 2019 Brent Stirton/Human Rights Watch

The criminal networks have the logistical capacity to coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to intimidate and, in some cases, kill those who seek to defend the forest, Human Rights Watch found.

On September 23, 2019 the United Nations will hold a summit meeting to discuss global efforts to mitigate climate change. As its contribution to those efforts, Brazil committed in 2016 to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 people, including 60 members of Indigenous communities, and other local residents in the states of Maranhão, Pará, and Rondônia. Researchers also interviewed dozens of government officials in Brasília and throughout the Amazon region, including many who provided inside accounts of how President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies are undermining enforcement efforts. 

During his first year in office, Bolsonaro has scaled back enforcement of environmental laws, weakened federal environmental agencies, and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working to preserve the rainforest.

More than 300 people have been killed during the last decade in the context of conflicts over the use of land and resources in the Amazon – many of them by people involved in illegal logging – according to figures compiled by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), a nonprofit organization, and cited by the Attorney General’s Office.

Human Rights Watch documented 28 killings – plus 4 attempted killings and over 40 cases of death threats – in which there was credible evidence that those responsible were engaged in illegal deforestation and saw their victims as obstacles to their criminal enterprise. Most of the cases are from the past five years. Some victims were environmental enforcement agents. Most were members of Indigenous communities or other forest residents who denounced illegal logging to authorities. 

In the Terra Nossa settlement in Pará state, a resident was killed and another disappeared after they announced plans to report illegal logging to authorities in 2018. The brother of one of the victims, who was investigating the crime, was also killed, as was the leader of a small farmers’ trade union after he too announced plans to report the illegal logging. Residents of the settlement reported that all four men were killed by an armed militia working for a criminal network of landowners who were, according to an internal government report, engaged in illegal logging.

Those responsible for the violence are rarely brought to justice. Of the more than 300 killings registered by CPT, only 14 ultimately went to trial; of the 28 killings Human Rights Watch documented, only two went to trial; and of the more than 40 cases or threats, none did. 

This lack of accountability is largely due to the failure by police to conduct proper investigations. Local police, who acknowledged the failure, say it is because the killings take place in remote areas. Yet, Human Rights Watch documented egregious omissions in investigations of killings that occurred in towns, not far from police stations, including the failure to conduct autopsies. 

Investigations of death threats fare no better, with officials in some locations refusing to even register complaints of threats. In at least 19 of the 28 documented killings, threats against the victims or their communities preceded the attacks. Had authorities investigated, the killings might have been averted.

Indigenous communities and other local residents have long played an important role in Brazil’s efforts to curb deforestation by alerting authorities to illegal logging activities that might otherwise go undetected. Scaling back environmental enforcement encourages illegal logging and results in greater pressure on local people to take a more active role in defending their forests. In so doing, they put themselves at risk of reprisals.  

Since 2004, Brazil has had a program to protect human rights and environmental defenders, but government officials interviewed agreed that the program provides little meaningful protection.

During Bolsonaro’s first eight months in office, deforestation almost doubled compared to the same period in 2018, according to preliminary official data. By August 2019, forest fires linked to deforestation were raging throughout the Amazon on a scale that had not been seen since 2010.

Such fires do not occur naturally in the wet ecosystem of the Amazon basin. Rather, they are started by people completing the process of deforestation where the trees of value have already been removed; they spread through the small clearings and discrete roads that have been carved by loggers, leaving veins of dryer, flammable vegetation that serve as kindling to ignite the rainforest. 

As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon plays a vital role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. When cut or burned down, the forest not only ceases to fulfill this function, but also releases back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it had previously stored.“The impact of the attacks on Brazil’s forest defenders extends far beyond the Amazon,” Wilkinson said. “Until the country addresses the violence and lawlessness that facilitate illegal logging, the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest will continue unchecked.”

Cases documented in the report include:

  • Gilson Temponi, president of a farmers’ association in Placas, Pará state, reported to prosecutors in 2018 illegal logging and death threats from loggers. In December of that year, two men knocked on his door and shot him to death.
  • Eusebio Ka’apor – a leader of the Ka’apor people who helped organize forest patrols to prevent loggers from entering Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory in Maranhão state – was killed in 2015. Shortly after his death, six of the seven members of the Ka´apor Governing Council, which coordinates the patrols, received death threats from loggers.
  • Osvalinda Pereira and her husband, Daniel Pereira, both small-scale farmers, have received death threats for nearly a decade since they began reporting illegal logging by a criminal network in Pará state. In 2018, they found two shallow graves dug in their yard, with wooden crosses affixed on top.
  • Dilma Ferreira Silva, an environmental activist in Pará state, and five other people were killed in 2019 under orders – according to police – of a landowner involved in illegal logging who feared that Silva and the others would report his criminal activities.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An external view of the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) headquarters in Parma, Italy, February 16, 2018.

© 2018 ANSA via AP Images

In several European countries, pregnant women risk consuming food contaminated with the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that could be harmful to the fetus.

Last month, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that the pesticide does not meet the safety criteria for renewed approval by the European Union. The agency joins eight EU member states and a growing number of children’s rights and environmental advocacy groups around the world pushing back against the use of this dangerous chemical.

Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide commonly used on food crops, has garnered international media attention in recent months due to its links to neurotoxic health issues. The pesticide belongs to a class of chemicals called organophosphates – a group of compounds that alter the structure and function of the human nervous system. Scientists have coupled chlorpyrifos exposure with neurodevelopmental challenges, as well as an array of symptoms including dizziness, confusion, respiratory paralysis, and even death. Many of these outcomes are particularly hazardous to children because their bodies and nervous systems are still developing – and because they may absorb toxic chemicals more easily than adults.

The EFSA’s finding that there does not exist a safe exposure level for chlorpyrifos comes at a critical time. The approval period for chlorpyrifos use in the EU expires in January 2020 and the manufacturer’s application to renew this approval is currently under review by the European Commission.

Earlier in July, the United States missed a similarly critical opportunity to protect public health when the Trump administration ruled against enacting a 2015 EPA proposal to ban chlorpyrifos. Still, environmental and public health advocates in the US are rallying, particularly at the state and local levels. Most recently, Human Rights Watch joined over 80 organizations in signing a letter urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to approve a bill banning chlorpyrifos in New York state.

Come January, the EU has an opportunity to act where the US has failed. Failure to protect against known dangerous pesticide exposures violates the right to health. EU officials should seek to better protect Europeans’ health – and uphold human rights – by not renewing the approval of this neurotoxic pesticide.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The damage done by Hurricane Maria was far worse than Alvarez, or anyone, could have imagined. With broken roads, and hospitals overwhelmed as blackouts roiled the island, she gave birth at home a few weeks later. She relied on her doula skills and a friend to stem her own bleeding which, like the first two births, was excessive.


Mariel Alvarez, Doula and mother

What was it like to be seven months pregnant during Hurricane Maria?

Last week, Puerto Rico was again under threat, as Hurricane Dorian tore across the Caribbean, almost exactly two years since Hurricane Maria made landfall. Heavily pregnant women, and those who have recently given birth, will have no doubt watched the news with same deepening sense of dread experienced by Alvarez and others two years ago.

Puerto Rico was lucky. Gathering hideous strength, Hurricane Dorian veered away from the island. But the hurricane did massive damage to the Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, leaving residents homeless and authorities scrambling to find missing people and provide water and food. And Dorian will doubtlessly expose – as did Maria – the unique vulnerabilities of particular groups, including pregnant women and those who have recently given birth.

While Hurricane Maria spared no one, pregnant women and those who had recently given birth were vulnerable to the storm’s wrath in unique ways. Their stories have been lost in anger and finger-pointing over the flawed emergency response and slow disbursement of recovery funds by US President Donald Trump’s administration. But they need to be heard: global warming climate crisis means Caribbean islands (and other areas like the eastern US seaboard) will face increasingly severe hurricanes with increased precipitation, like Maria.

In 2018, a year after Hurricane Maria, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, and NGO staff, and 16 women who were pregnant or had recently given birth when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Each of these women faced unique and extraordinary challenges, but taken together their testimonies paint a picture of the distinct challenges pregnant women and new moms faced. New mothers and pregnant women struggled for months after Maria hit with the healthcare system in shambles, and difficulty knowing how and where to access the scant services that were available to them.


Dr Yari Vale Moreno, ObGyn

What problems do women face because of lack of access to clean water and electricity?

Adli, 25, said that she began having sporadic contractions at home during the 2017 hurricane, and worried that she might go into labor months before she was due to give birth. She said she could not locate her doctor and was unsure whether her hospital would be open. “It was a very precarious situation,” she remembered.

Yulisa, 23, recounted how her sister missed prenatal appointments following Hurricane Maria, and when she was able to make it to a hospital, they were unable to do a prenatal exam. She said that soon after her attempt to access care at the hospital, her sister had a pre-term birth, and the baby died the next day. Gabriela was six months pregnant when Hurricane Maria struck. She said she could not attend prenatal check-ups for two months afterward because “after the hurricane everything was closed, the roads were covered in trees,” even though she was suffering from such acute gastritis that she could not sleep lying down during this time. One woman named Carolina could not find a way for her premature baby, born four days before Maria, to get her vaccinations.


Lourdes Santaballa, CASICA

How did you deal with infant care after Hurricane Maria?

The lack of water also meant keeping caesarean section or vaginal wounds clean was harder, women told us. Dr. Yari Vale Moreno, an obstetrician, worked in a mobile clinic that went out to find patients in places where the clinics were not functional. She found widespread vaginal infections because many had little or no clean water.

Other women faced a myriad of other problems: no electricity meant nowhere to store pumped breast milk even if you could find a generator to pump. Some interviewees said lack of clean water made them feel more dehydrated and making formula an acute problem on top of many others. New mothers struggling to breastfeed couldn’t find help. Supporting mothers with breastfeeding, which provides babies with both the nutrients and safe water, is recognized as a lifesaving intervention in disasters, including in the US


Lenulisy Rosado Estradam, Oxfam

What was the impact of Hurricane Maria on how women perform domestic tasks?

An Oxfam report also showed how women and girls carried the burden of washing houses, clothes, and the soiled sheets of bedridden relatives by hand without electricity and running water.

Epidemiologists who calculated the excess mortality after the storm found that almost 3,000 additional people died in the months after the storm. It’s not known how many of these deaths were maternal deaths, or what maternal morbidity (serious injury connected to pregnancy or giving birth) was like after Maria. Most people died two to three months after Maria hit, and people in poorer areas died in higher numbers, often where electricity was restored last.


Tania Rosario, Taller Salud

What matters in how a disaster is responded to?

After Maria, community organizations, including women’s rights groups, like Taller Salud in Loiza municipality, stepped in to take on some responsibilities of the state including by running large aid distribution efforts, feeding thousands with donations from the Puerto Rican diaspora. They made sure domestic violence victims had housing so they didn’t have to move back in with abusers, that pads and tampons were included in their distributions. They saw first-hand the importance of considering gender in disaster response. So far, no government authorities have sought their reflections and expertise nor, as far as they know, has it been incorporated in disaster planning.

The insights from groups like Taller Salud should help guide and be included in Puerto Rico’s disaster plan. This plan is still not finished; in May this year its drafters said that they had not consulted with women’s rights groups while drafting an emergency action plan, which, two years after Hurricane Maria, has still not been made public.  


Maria Fernos, InterMujeres

What needs to happen now that we are in hurricane season again?

The epidemiological study found the failure of planning and communication, as well as disparities between communities in wealth, were all key reasons why Hurricane Maria’s aftermath led to a secondary public health disaster far more deadly than the high winds and water that killed 76 people. Adaptation policies – plans for how Puerto Rico will cope with the impacts of the climate crisis – and hurricane readiness are critical and can mean the difference between life and death for thousands.

There will always be pregnant and postpartum women in disasters. Their needs and vulnerabilities will be different, as Maria showed, and as Dorian will very likely show us again, and need to be seen and prepared for long before the next devastating storm hits.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am