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South Korea / Hazardous substances: UN expert calls for stronger protections for people at high-risk


SEOUL (23 October 2015) – United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, today called on the Republic of Korea to step up efforts in protecting those who live in environmentally high-risk areas. “I am far from convinced that sufficient information systems and governance structures are present to detect risks before they manifest into adverse impacts,” he said, speaking at the end of his first official visit* to the Republic of Korea.

“There must be a more robust legislative framework and implementing policy that would protect everyone, particularly those who are most at risk, such as children, workers including irregular and migrant workers and those living in rural areas that have been recently industrialized, from the various threats to life and health presented by hazardous substances,” he stated.

The human rights expert noted, nonetheless, the positive steps taken by the Government to mitigate the adverse impacts of hazardous substances and wastes on human rights. These include the adoption of numerous international human rights and environmental treaties, as well as domestic laws, implementing regulations, policies and programmes.

“While these measures are highly commendable,” Mr. Tuncak said, “my discussions with victims who have lost loved ones paint a picture of extreme vulnerability for those most at risk.” During his 14-day mission, the Special Rapporteur met with numerous victims who are suffering or have lost loved ones following exposure to toxic chemicals.

Over 140 people have died and over 500 injured after purchasing a humidifier disinfectant, mostly from UK-based Reckett Benskiser.

“I was deeply disturbed by the case of consumers who unknowingly used a humidified disinfectant that had grossly insufficient information about its safety, and whose lives have now been devastated,” he said noting that woman and children have been the vast majority of the victims. “One gentleman shared with me how he blames himself for the death of his mother, since he purchased and used the humidifier disinfectant in their home.”

Between 70 to over 300 workers have alleged their illnesses are due to the use of hazardous chemicals at Samsung Electronics, mostly young women, a large number of which have now died from leukemia, lymphoma or other severe and irreversible illnesses. “Workers, particularly sub-contractors, across a range of industries, are at serious risk,” the Special Rapporteur cautioned.

Communities are living in undeniably hazardous conditions. “In the city of Gimpo, located a few hours outside Seoul, small-scale industrial facilities have overrun a once quiet community, as a result of the Government’s deregulation policies to promote economic growth.” Family homes, subsistence farms are now wedged between factories emitting dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxic chemicals into homes and agricultural land.

“With only a few local officials assigned to monitor approximately 10,000 industrial facilities for pollution, their mandate to prevent harm to local residents appears impossible to achieve. They are unable to offer any substantial evidence to support local residents who must prove the cause of their illnesses and identify which of thousands of companies to hold accountable.”

“These victims right to life, health, safe working conditions, and housing, as well as their right to information and an effective remedy have been undermined, denied or outright violated,” he said.

“Individuals have the right to an effective remedy and States are obliged to enforce the remedy by competent authorities,” the Special Rapporteur stressed, recalling Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by Korea.

Mr. Tuncak commended the Government of Korea for having ratified key international human rights treaties and environmental conventions, as well as the authorities’ efforts to try to find a solution to those populations at risk. “However,” he emphasized, “the Government has to do more.”

“I am deeply concerned about the prospect for recurrence of similar unforeseen tragedies without stronger measures for prevention,” he stressed. “The ongoing efforts of companies to settle with victims and bury the issue, in a manner of speaking, without adequately address the need to prevent the reoccurrence of serious human rights violations is of grave concern.”

During his visit to Korea, the expert met officials from ministries, local authorities, the private sector, the National Human Rights Institute, former judiciaries and mediators, NGOs, and victims and their families.

His final report, including findings and key recommendations is expected to be presented at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16639&LangID=E

Mr. Baskut Tuncak (Turkey) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/ToxicWastes/Pages/SRToxicWastesIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – The Republic of Korea: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/KRIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact:
In the Republic of Korea (during the visit):
Melinda Ching-Simon (+41 79 444 4332 /mchingsimon@ohchr.org) or
Ahreum Lee (+41 79 444 4355 / ahreumlee@ohchr.org)

In Geneva (before and after the visit):
Melinda Ching-Simon (+41 22 917 9113 / mchingsimon@ohchr.org) or
Ahreum Lee (+41 79 917 9391 / ahreumlee@ohchr.org)
or write to srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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