22 Sep 2023
15:00–16:00

Venue: Palais des Nations, Room H.307-2 & Online | Webex

Organization: Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, Earthjustice, Geneva Environment Network

On the sidelines of 54th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC54), this year’s Toxic Free Talks took place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment.

About this Session

The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights on the Right to Science is a crucial document in the negotiations to create a new Science-Policy Panel to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution. The report provides both a guide for the discussions and a benchmark for assessing the outcome of these negotiations, as the right to science:

  • Implies the availability and accessibility of accurate scientific information to the general public and specific stakeholders.
  • Requires that governments correct scientific disinformation.
  • Implies an enabling environment where scientific freedoms may be realized and where governments foster needed scientific research on toxic substances that endanger human health and the environment.

The establishment of a Science-Policy Panel can help strengthen the scientific basis of policies related to chemicals and waste management, and contribute to more effective and sustainable approaches to preventing pollution and protecting human health and the environment. The Panel will rely on scientific expertise and guidance to policymakers on the identification, assessment, and management of hazardous chemicals and waste, as well as on the development of strategies to prevent pollution.

However, further engagement from and stronger links with the scientific community remain to be wanted. Ahead of the 2nd meeting of the Ad hoc Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) taking place in Jordan, from 11 to 15 December 2023, this discussion aims to enable scientists and the UN Special Rapporteur to exchange views on the process and forthcoming negotiation milestones.

About the Geneva Toxic Free Talks

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reports every fall to the Council and to the UN General Assembly on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Toxic Free Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the production, use, and dissemination of toxics and on how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working in reversing the toxic tide.

On the sidelines of HRC54, this year’s Toxic Free Talks took place from 20 to 22 September — three days of conferences and discussions, highlighting the work of the Special Rapporteur and of organizations in the struggle for the right to live in a toxic-free environment.

Speakers

Marcos ORELLANA

UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Tessa GOVERSE

Principal Officer, Secretariat of the OEWG on a Science-Policy Panel on Chemicals, Waste and Prevention of Pollution, UNEP

Agustín HARTE

Programme Officer | Scientific and Technical Assistance Branch, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat

Igor GRYSHKO

Human Rights Officer, Environment and Climate Change Team, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Gretta GOLDENMAN

Co-coordinator, Global PFAS Science Panel & Former Chair, Green Science Policy Institute

Yves LADOR

Representative of Earthjustice to the United Nations in Geneva | Moderator

Highlights

Video

Livestreamed through Webex

Live in the Room

Summary

Opening

Marcos ORELLANA | UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

I had the opportunity to present a couple of years ago a thematic report to the Human Rights Council on the right to science. It was a good moment to reflect on the Right to Science as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had recently published a General Comment 25 looking at Article 15 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the UN in a comprehensive manner. There was a good basis to capture that momentum and look at the specific implications of the Right to Science for toxics where it has a significant impact.

Another consideration was the distance between the signed available scientific evidence on risks, and the existing regulatory measures. A gap resulting in the lack of protection and in the toxification of our planet.

The result of those discussions led to the creation of a new Science-Policy Panel on Chemicals and Waste. There was worry, at the time, that with another layer of science, a new risk of science being captured by industry could emerge. It is important as such to deal with those issues, especially of mercenary scientists and product defense firms whose line of business is to spread confusion.

A Science-Policy Panel has a lot of potential to address these.

Tessa GOVERSE | Principal Officer, Science-Policy Panel on Chemicals, Waste and Prevention of Pollution, UNEP

Heading the Secretariat of the ad-hoc open and working group on a Science Policy Panel to contribute further to the management of Chemicals and Wastes and to Prevent Pollution, we often speak about the Right to Science.

Engaged at UNEP for 20 years in many assessments and foresight processes on chemicals and waste, the story of how people or ecosystems are affected by the absence of sound management of chemicals and waste really brings home the issues. It is the duty of the international community to address them. The Right to Science is fundamental to keep the environment under review, ensure that the evidence-based for decision making is there. But also in having a voice, we need to know who is making the decisions, on what, and on what basis.

Panel Establishment | The 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly decided that a Science Policy Panel should be established to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and prevent pollution. The open-ended working group is mandated under this resolution 5-38 to develop proposals to establish this panel, undertaking three sessions to complete the work by 2024:

  • OEWG 1 in Bangkok, Thailand;
  • OEWG 2 in Nairobi, Kenya from 11 to 15 December. Its relationship with key stakeholders is one of the substantive matters to be discussed, as conflicts of interest, policies and procedures.
  • OEWG 3, the final session, planned for June 2024 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Human Rights | The human rights community is one of the relevant key stakeholders for the future panel for a number of reasons:

  1. First, they share some common ideas, such as the right to a clean healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. As its promotion requires the full implementation of multilateral environmental agreements, the first session of the open-ended working group decided on the alignment with this objective. If the text may still be further refined, it’s likely that the panel shares the same intentions as the human rights community.
  2. Second, the human rights community can provide critical knowledge, data, and perspectives on the work of the open-ended working group and the future panel. The work of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Science provides many critical aspects that we may wish to take into consideration. Once established, the panel will need to determine and execute its work program. A human rights perspective might be one of the important considerations for defining priorities.
  3. Third, the human rights community can contribute to fostering the policy uptake of the panel’s work, to help bring the science produced or brought to the table to those who need to take decisions, or those who may be affected, or risked to be impacted.

The OEWG decided on five functions for the panel:

  1. Undertaking horizon scanning to identify issues of relevance to policymakers,
  2. Conducting assessments,
  3. Providing up-to-date information encouraging and supporting communications and raising public awareness,
  4. Facilitating information sharing with countries,
  5. Capacity building.

The human rights community can contribute to the dissemination of the panel work at various levels, in various communities and in languages beyond the six UN languages.

It can contribute to raising awareness and strengthening the capacity of policymakers and the public, to foster the uptake of the panel’s work into effective action. Possible joint efforts can extend the panel’s work from the meeting rooms to create real-life impacts. I invite you all to follow the OEWG process and provide inputs to all stages, to work together towards a pollution-free planet with a clean and healthy environment, while leaving no one behind.

Panel Discussion

Agustín HARTE | Programme Officer | Scientific and Technical Assistance Branch, Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat

Municipalities all over the coastline of the Rio de La Plata have joined forces with the provincial government, the national government, the university, and scientific institutions to monitor every quarter periodically the water quality of the river. The measures taken are used by policymakers at different levels to provide information on water quality and to take decisions on fishing, pollutants, water sports, etc. Science can inform policymakers to take decisions to protect the population.

The BRS Conventions

  • Stockholm Convention: addresses some of the most relevant pollutants on Earth because, with persisting impacts on human health and the environment
  • Rotterdam Convention: controls the exports and imports of a list of hazardous substances including pesticides and Industrial chemicals which have been banned or restricted in different areas around the world.
  • Bassel Convention: hazardous waste and other types of waste, including plastic waste and E-Waste. It establishes a mechanism where exported countries have to notify and transit and imported countries have to approve the movement and the import of these types of waste, ensuring that the destination is in an environmentally sound manner way. It provides extensive guidance on the vast environmental practices and technologies for waste disposal including recovery operations such as recycling and final disposal operations such as incineration or landfills.

BRS Conventions and Science | These conventions heavily rely on science and technical knowledge. Science was even needed when those conventions were conceived which required technical knowledge on chemicals and waste.

Specialized scientific bodies (Chemical Review Committee / Pop Review Committee) are helpful in deciding on proposals and recommend to the parties to list new chemicals in the annexes of the respective conventions.

Science is also needed to assess whether the actions and provisions of these conventions are effective or not.  Global assessments are developed and are essential to assess the effectiveness of this convention. The recognition in 2017 by parties that enhancing science collaboration with policymakers was needed led to the establishment of a roadmap from science to action. The parties requested the Secretariat to strengthen the cooperation at the international level.

Final Points | In the first meeting of that open-ended working group, several regions highlighted the need to include an objective on training and capacity building. The experience of the BRS convention secretariat was highlighted by the delegates as a good example to support developing countries, and we can share that experience.

A prevention aspect needs to consider tools such as horizon scanning to identify global boundaries and emerging issues on the aspects of pollution and recommend possible actions to prevent future damage. We need to shift from reaction to prevention.

We need to better integrate actions to tackle the triple planetary. A new panel focusing on chemical waste and pollution prevention could interact and collaborate with the existing scientific international panels to develop further and do better recommendations for policymakers to take action.

Igor GRYSHKO | Human Rights Officer, Environment and Climate Change Team, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

All people have, everywhere, a right to clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, as recently recognized by a general assembly resolution adopted with a strong support, sending a powerful message. Clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water, healthy and sustainable produced food, non-toxic environment are generally recognized as a key elements of that right.

A human life-based approach to addressing the tribal planetary crisis calls for a vision that aligns with scientific evidence, centers on principles of accountability and informed participation. It gives special attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations.

The United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights stipulated industry and governments must make all efforts to promote accurate scientific information. This means :

  • No modest information,
  • No more deliberate meeting informing on the public to erode understanding,
  • Respect to science and scientific research.

Requirement for a Right to Science | The right to science requires that policies be based on the best available scientific evidence. A gap exists in reality, and is a result of :

  • Disinformation,
  • Lack of participation of civil society,
  • Undermining of the science policy interface by conflict of interest.

There should be an enabling environment for the conduct of scientific inquiry, not manipulated by industrial companies (historical examples of tobacco, sugar, soft drinks, industry fossil, medical and chemical industries) that can participate in the creation of doubt, altering scientific facts and empirical findings,  to benefit of  a particular company or a group of individuals.

Conflict of interests declaration alone is not enough.

Human Rights Economy | A human rights economy aims to center people and the planet in economy, including the right to a healthy environment underlined to science. It recognizes the right to science is integral to fostering innovation, improving living standards and addressing global challenges such as healthcare, education, social, and environmental sustainability by ensuring that scientific advancements are harnessed for the benefit of all. Societies can create a more aggregable and inclusive economic frameworks that uphold the dignity and rights of every individual.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights believes that science and human rights must direct our actions. Big polluters can and must be held to account. Scientists have provided powerful tools for us to reimagine the economic structures that have driven so much destruction.

Gretta GOLDENMAN | Co-coordinator, Global PFAS Science Panel & Former Chair, Green Science Policy Institute

The view of policy makers and their need for science | A lot of scientists think that in order to be unbiased they cannot get involved with policy. It is a great mistake. Scientists have a responsibility to be able to reach out and to become involved in some of these policy processes. A lot of dialogue between science and policy makers is needed.

Collaborating with Scientists for policy can be very successful:

  1. The Global PFAS Science Panel is a collaboration between academic scientists, regulatory scientists and policy analysts. We are all figuring out how we can bring some very concrete changes in reducing the exposure to PFAS. Our concept of Essential Use is now taken up by EU policymakers.
  2. We are making a scientific case for why the whole group of PFAS (14,000 considered on the commercial market), having a number of characteristics in common, need to be regulated as a group rather than individually. Policymakers cannot handle these chemicals one by one and need to be addressed in terms of groups.

It is important to reach out to scientists, to try to inform them about international policy processes, to try to help them form collaborations, to learn communication skills, etc.

Q&A

Q: The question of “Who is deciding? is a very interesting and important question for us.

Tessa GOVERSE | Elements on scientific expertise/call to the Human Rights Community. The Science-Policy Panel is there to build on some of the learning and the experiences. We see a progressive improvement of the science-policy interface, and member states have asked specifically to look at these examples, including the BRS conventions.

There are also many questions and asks that could come from the panel from various stakeholders. We can learn the science policy interface site such as IPCC the IPBES. An additional benefit is ultimately addressing the triple planetary crisis in an interactive manner, which fully comes back to know the right to a clean and healthy uh environment.

The gap can be narrowed between science and policy.  It is very important to understand the needs of policy makers and look more at the prevention side.

Q: Going from reaction to prevention is a key issue. Does the role of SPP to lead us to more work on groups of substances or sectoral approach?

Augustin HARTE | At the BRS Secretariat, we discussed and learned uh from the BRS throughout the years on how to address groups of chemicals. The challenge of grouping chemicals is not an easy task (hundreds and even thousands chemicals and applications), requiring a lot of technical insight, but it has proven to be effective.

When considering new chemicals,  there is also the issue on regrettable substitutions, having for example the same effect than the prohibited substance.

The SPP has the opportunity to do a wider scanning of certain substances and pollutants on a wider scope and then provide with further information and recommendations for countries to trigger for parties the obligation under specific multilateral environmental agreements.

Q: The 75 years of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how it is an opportunity to realign and put human rights at the center. If the Declaration doesn’t talk about the environment is just because it didn’t come out, but it comes up now. Could prevention and other discussed elements be taken up in the events organized by your team at the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) event?

We indeed foresee several events, including some on prevention.

  • 20 October: Dialogue in Brussels on the right to a healthy and sustainable environment and to address these issues exactly in the region of Europe and Central Asia.

We can prevent but we have to recognize that the human race harm has already been done and the victims need to have access to accountability mechanisms.

Toxics have environmental issues but also affect all human rights, economic, social, political, and culture. A mechanism can be found to reach accountability through the already existing and new tools and instruments.

Q: The issue of essential uses is that the list became so long that the exception we began to swallow the rule. There is risk but there is also space for unpacking. Is the coming seminar announced by the SPP Secretariat of the Conflict of Interest is the opportunity for the scientific community to get more involved ?

It is a major concern, but the main one is to take a broader view of the problem to figure out how to roll back the toxification of the planet. What are the possibilities and alternatives to go beyond and start detoxification?

Closing

Marcos ORELLANA | One of the features of the chemicals and waste landscape is fragmentation. The multiplicity of our bodies interaction raises challenges.

There is a very clear opportunity to learn from the good practices that have informed the field and the design of the SPP.  An opportunity is to learn from what are not good practices (ex: Rotterdam Convention breakdown). Science can be and is contested (ex: Fukushima waters).

The work of the SPP, given the contested and not monolithic science, will broaden human knowledge on the various issues that concern science in regards to chemicals, wastes and pollution, will reduce uncertainties and it will enhance the basis on which action can be taken.

There is a range of issues that need clarification. We can anticipate challenges and help look at the horizon, identifying opportunities.

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