In a meeting with non-governmental human rights and environmental organizations in San Francisco last week, U.N. Special Rapporteur Fatma Zora Ouhachi-Vesely had harsh words for the United States' practice of exporting chemicals, pesticides, and waste banned domestically to developing nations.
"Just because something is not illegal, it may still be immoral. Allowing the export of products recognized to be harmful is immoral," said Mrs. Vesely as she gathered information about U.S. toxic export practices.
As Special Rapporteur to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (Geneva), Mrs. Vesely was in the United States on a fact-finding mission during which she met with government officials and non-governmental organizations. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Toxics addresses traffic in toxic and dangerous products and wastes and its impact on human rights. Mrs. Vesely was in the United States to examine current issues and trends in the international transfer of materials and to learn about threats to human rights in the United States and abroad.
The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health noted that between 1996 and 2000, the United States exported nearly 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides that have been identified as known or suspected carcinogens, an average rate of almost 16 tons per hour. Most of these exports are sent to the developing world and used in agriculture. According to the International Labor Organization, 65 to 90 percent of the children estimated to be working in Africa (80 million), Asia (152 million) and Latin America (17 million) are working in agriculture. These children are often continuously exposed to pesticides in the fields, from their water, through their clothing, and at their homes.
Mrs. Vesely explained why the export of pesticides banned in the United States creates human rights issues. "Even if something is marked 'poison' it tends to be shipped in large amounts, then transferred to smaller containers without proper labeling for local sale and use. And the people actually using the products often cannot read anyway," she explained.
During her visit to the United States Vesely also met with government officials. "US officials told me that pesticides banned in the United States but exported cannot be regulated if there is a demand overseas, because of free-trade agreements." But NGOs presented proof that the demand from developing countries stems from promotional campaigns by the U.S. companies that profit from these sales. "Developing countries do not have the medical or regulatory capacity to address the negative effects of these chemicals on their population. That is what makes this is an immoral practice," explained Vesely.
Vesely also explained that in an interconnected world economy, pesticides banned in the United States can find their way back into the United States via food imports. Vesely explained, "So banning the export of dangerous pesticides can protect Americans as well."