HRC45: Brazil is failing to prevent and minimise exposure to hazardous substances and COVID-19 in Yanomami territories

On Monday 21st of September 2020, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an interactive dialogue with the new Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Substances and Wastes, Marcos A. Orellana, who presented reports compiled by his predecessor, Mr. Baskut Tuncak. The Right Livelihood Foundation delivered a statement expressing great concern over the current existential threats facing indigenous communities in Brazil, including 2019 Right Livelihood Laureate Davi Kopenawa. 

Introducing the thematic report on states duty to prevent exposure to COVID-19, Marcos Orellana stressed that states have a duty to “prevent and minimise” exposure to hazardous substances, including viruses such as COVID-19. He emphasised that while some countries have shown good practices, such as preventative measures, rapid responses, access to health for all and adherence to recommendations from the scientific community, many others regrettably exhibited blatant inaction or inappropriate response. In numerous examples, States created situations where the most marginalised and vulnerable communities were at the greatest risk of death from COVID-19. Turning to the report from his predecessor’s visit to Brazil he stated that the country is in a state of deep regression from Human Rights principles, laws and standards. From the burning of the Amazon, to the insidious threats of toxic pollution, Brazil has absconded from its duty to prevent and protect. To these ends, the report recommends the HRC to hold an inquiry into the current human rights situation in Brazil as well as a special session on the protection of the Amazon rainforest and human rights.

During the interactive dialogue that followed, 29 members and observers took the floor, including two joint statements. Speaking as a concerned country, Brazil criticised the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, claiming that they “overstep his mandate” and that the report “relies on unreliable and outdated data” for a number of claims. Generally, nevertheless, States agreed with the Special Rapporteur over the existence of a State duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances and many presented their good practices with regards to the pandemic management. Botswana stressed that international cooperation is fundamental and that all products, including the eventual COVID-19 vaccine, should be treated as a global public health good and shared equitably between countries. The Russian Federation failed to see a link between the mandate and the spread of coronavirus, stressing that the report seemed to address an issue that was out of his mandate.

Fédora Bernard from the Right Livelihood Foundation delivering the Oral Statement at HRC45.

The Right Livelihood Foundation delivered a statement, drawing the Council’s attention to the worrying situation of indigenous communities in the Amazon, in particular the Yanomami, who are 250% more at risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the rest of the population. In addition, they are at constant threat of other diseases, including mercury poisoning, due to the presence of illegal miners in the area. We echoed the calls made previously this year, by 2019 Right Livelihood Laureate Davi Kopenawa at the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, to ensure that Brazilian authorities effectively protect the demarcated Yanomami territory and prosecute those responsible for illegal mining. Read the full statement below.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Orellana emphasised the importance of international solidarity when it comes to management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. He also condemned that the COVID-19 pandemic had been accompanied by misinformation campaigns and stressed that he plans to defend the role of science throughout his mandate.

Oral Statement delivered at the 45th session of the Human Rights Council

ITEM 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes

Madam President,

The Right Livelihood Foundation thanks the Special Rapporteur for the reports and the attention given to Brazil, where a generation of indigenous leaders is facing extermination due to a grave lack of prevention and protection.

While States have an obligation to prevent exposure to hazardous substances, Brazil’s ruinous approach to the COVID-19 pandemic failed to follow WHO recommendations, leading to what is today the world’s second highest death toll. The situation is even more alarming for indigenous communities in the Amazon, where the death rate of COVID-19 is estimated to be 250 per cents higher.

Today, indigenous peoples in Brazil are facing an existential crisis. In the Yanomami territory illegal miners, estimated to be 20,000, do not only bring COVID-19, but also other diseases, including mercury poisoning. The substance, used in the gold extraction process, contaminates rivers and food chains. We thus condemn any attempt to legalise commercial mining in indigenous territories, which would be tantamount to genocide.

Madam President,

Indigenous peoples in Brazil are more threatened than ever. We echo the call made last March upon this Council by Yanomami leader and Right Livelihood Laureate Davi Kopenawa, to ensure that Brazilian authorities effectively protect the demarcated Yanomami territory and prosecute those responsible for invasions. We urge Brazil to promptly uphold its international obligations, including the right to life, health and self-determination, before it is too late.

Thank you.