21.08.2019 |

Paraguay blamed for human rights violations related to pesticide spraying

Aerial pesticide spraying of crops (Photo: CC0)

Paraguay must take action to prosecute those responsible for the massive use of pesticides which led to the poisoning of citizens, the contamination of water, soil and food, a UN body has ruled. In a landmark decision published on August 14th, the UN Human Rights Committee said that the South American country failed to protect its citizens from the effects of toxic agrochemicals. The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent human rights experts, urged the Paraguayan government to undertake an effective investigation, to make full reparation to the victims, and to publish the decision in a daily newspaper with a large circulation. The case concerns a family of rural workers in Canindeyú Department, an area of major expansion of agribusinesses and extensive mechanized cultivation of genetically modified soybeans. The victims complained that the pesticide use at soy farms in the area resulted in the death of a 26-year old farmer and the poisoning of 22 other community members.

“The large-scale use of toxic agrochemicals in the region has had severe impacts on the victims’ living conditions, health, livelihoods, contaminating water resources and aquifers, preventing the use of streams, and causing the loss of fruit trees, the death of various farm animals and severe crop damage,” the UN Committee said in a press release. The victims experienced a range of physical symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, headaches, fever, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing and skin lesions. The death of Rubén Portillo Cáceres and the poisening occurred in 2011. The family filed an “amparo”, a remedy for the protection of constitutional rights, and the Paraguayan courts found that the State had violated its obligations “to protect the constitutional right to health, to physical and psychological integrity, to quality of life and to live in a healthy and ecologically sound environment”. The court said that the Ministry of the Environment (SEAM) and the National Plant and Seed Quality and Health Service (SENAVE) had allowed serious physical harm by failing to protect citizens. The court ordered both institutions to protect environmental resources and ensure that buffer zones separate the areas where agrochemicals are used from human settlements and waterways. The family also lodged a criminal complaint and samples were collected from the well at the victims’ house. The results showed the presence of agrochemicals banned many years ago.

Eight years later, the UN Human Rights Committee looked into the case and found that the decision of the Paraguayan court had not been implemented. “The investigations have made no substantive progress and have not led to any finding of criminal responsibility or to the redress of the harm,” the Committee writes in its statement. “Fumigations have continued without any environmental protection measures, and soybean producers located next to the victims’ home are still applying massive amounts of agrochemicals without environmental permits.” The Committee noted that the State failed to honour its obligations and did not exercise adequate controls over illegal polluting activities. The human rights body concluded that “heavily spraying the area with toxic agrochemicals poses a reasonably foreseeable threat to the victims’ lives” and declared that the right to life and the right to private life, family and home had been violated.

“This is a landmark decision in favour of the recognition of the link between severe harms to environment and the enjoyment of core civil and political rights”, said Hélène Tigroudja, Member of the Committee. “Hundreds of similar cases around the world could be submitted for our consideration. We deeply encourage States to protect the right to life understood as the right to enjoy a life with dignity against environmental pollution”, she added. The Committee has requested Paraguay to report back within 180 days, detailing the measures it had been taken to implement the decision. Paraguay is one of the 173 States parties which have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since Paraguay also acceded to the Optional Protocol to this Covenant, the Committee has the mandate to examine allegations of human rights violations by the State party. “Although the Human Rights Committee’s decisions aren’t binding, it’s usually awkward and embarrassing for countries to ignore or discount them,” Professor John Knox, the Former Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, explained on Twitter. “The decision is the first one in which a treaty body has so clearly stated that a State’s failure to protect against environmental harm can violate its obligations to protect rights of life and of private/family life.” (ab)

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