May 19, 2022

UN Special Rapporteur Targets ‘Sacrifice Zones’ Caused by the Ongoing Toxification of People and the Planet

Posted on May 19, 2022 by Susan Kath

In his latest report, the sixth in a series of thematic reports, Professor David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment celebrates a turning point in the evolution of human rights: the October 8, 2021 adoption by the Human Rights Council of an historic resolution, 48/13, recognizing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Boyd urges us all to embrace the new resolution as a catalyst to accelerate action to address the global environmental crisis. In every corner of the world, as his report and appendices 1 and 2 demonstrate, there is much to be done.

Boyd’s report calls out as “unconscionable environmental injustices” the “sacrifice zones” that plague the world and expose communities to extreme levels of pollution and toxic contamination. Observing that the climate emergency, the global biodiversity crisis, and the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic dominate the headlines, he observes that the extreme toll inflicted on health, human rights, and ecosystem integrity by pollution and toxic substances remain largely overlooked. Citing the stunning fact that 9 million premature deaths occurred during the first 18th months of the Covid-19 pandemic, he notes that low- and middle-income countries suffer nearly 92 percent of pollution related deaths. Evidence shows that this disproportionate impact falls on the shoulders of individuals, groups, and communities that are already enduring poverty, discrimination, and systemic marginalization.

What are sacrifice zones?

Originating in the cold war area, the term was originally used to identify areas made uninhabitable by nuclear experiments conducted by the United States, the Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with permanent high levels of radiation. In the world today, Boyd describes them as a “place where residents suffer devastating physical and mental health consequences and human rights violations as a result of living in pollution hotspots and heavily contaminated areas.”

These heavily polluting and hazardous facilities are often located in, around, and next door to poor and marginalized communities: open-pit mines, smelters, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, coal-fired power stations, oil- and gas fields, steel plants, garbage dumps and hazardous waste incinerators (and clusters of these facilities). Calling the continued existence of sacrifice zones a “stain upon the collective conscience of humanity”, Boyd asserts powerfully:

The people who inhabit sacrifice zones are exploited, traumatized and stigmatized. They are treated as disposable, their voices ignored, their presence excluded from decision-making processes and their dignity and human rights trampled upon. Sacrifice zones exist in States rich and poor, North and South. . . .

These sacrifice zones, many of which are identified in the report, combined with the reality that poor and marginalized communities are more heavily affected by pollution, represent environmental injustice. Explaining the transnational nature of some of these injustices, such as export of pesticides and plastic wastes to countries that have weaker regulations and limited enforcement, Boyd describes how these communities also lack access to environmental information, the ability to participate in decision-making related to the environment, and do not have access to justice and effective remedies when their rights are jeopardized or violated by pollution or toxic chemicals.

To better grasp the extent and number of sacrifice zones, a review of Boyd’s Appendix 1 reveals an additional list of sites from those featured in the main report, drawn from every continent and more than 50 states, covering Africa, Asia Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin American and the Caribbean, Western Europe and North America, and even Climate Crisis sacrifice zones.

What must be done?

Boyd provides a clear road map of the human rights obligations related to pervasive pollution and toxic substances, and states that the recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should mark a “turning point” in our approach to managing pollution. As he explains, from a human rights perspective, it is no longer a policy option, but a legally binding obligation to achieve a non-toxic environment. He also shares compelling information about good practices that are encouraging examples of both the prevention of future environmental injustices and the remediation of past and current ones. These include key global treaties, the prohibition by 60 States of all uses of all types of asbestos, the strong regulatory framework for toxic substances (40 instruments) in Europe, CERCLA in the United States, the closure of many coal-fired power plants, and so on. In Appendix 2, he highlights dozens of additional good practices, many which he sourced from an open call.

The report closes with a comprehensive, highly specific list of 33 obligations that States must take to fulfill their obligations to ensure a non-toxic environment.

It is a clear-eyed guide for anyone who cares about environmental justice and human rights.