Baskut Tuncak: Bhopal: Chemical industry must respect human rights

GENEVA November 27, 2019 – In commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, a UN human rights expert is calling on chemical manufacturers to recognise and meet their responsibility to respect human rights. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, issued the following statement:

The tragic story of Bhopal’s chemical disaster is far from over. Contaminated water and soil from the pesticide factory has denied generation after generation in Bhopal a life of dignity and maximum development, among many other rights. The factory was owned at the time by Union Carbide. The firm later became a subsidiary of Dow-DuPont.

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The chemical industry’s ‘Responsible Care’ initiative was adopted in 1986 as result of the Bhopal disaster in an effort to prevent further abuses of human rights by chemical manufacturers. Yet this industry initiative contains no mention of human rights, and fails to require that industry respects human rights in practice.

Case after case has illustrated the chemical industry’s failure to respect the human rights to life and the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination, among others, and implement policies and practices that reflect the letter and spirit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The chemical industry exemplifies the weakness of voluntary standards on human rights and the urgent need for strong requirements with legal force.

The petrochemical industry sits at the epicentre of the existential crises of climate change, biodiversity collapse and the toxification of people and the planet. The existing human rights policies of nearly all chemical companies only superficially address human rights, excluding the most significant actual and potential impacts of their products and practices.  

“Preventable tragedies continue to unfold as a result of the chemical industry’s refusal to take its responsibility to respect human rights to heart, not just when it is convenient. From deadly explosions of manufacturing and storage facilities, to the scandalous abuse of the right to bodily integrity with toxic ‘forever chemicals’ contaminating water, air, food, housing and consumer products, the chemical industry must do more to respect human rights. 

As the UN projects the chemical industry will double in size by 2030, the likelihood of human rights impacts by the industry is set to increase dramatically.
Thirty-five years is far too long for human rights due diligence not to be standard practice in an industry with such inherent risks to human rights. Industry associations must make robust human rights due diligence mandatory for their member companies for toxic chemical and pollution risks. This includes human rights due diligence for their manufacturing facilities and the hazards of their chemical products, as well as the impacts on workers, children, and others who are exposed to their toxic chemical products and by-products.

Background: On the night of 2 December 1984, a Union Carbide chemical facility at Bhopal leaked a highly toxic gas, poisoning tens of thousands of people in the middle of the night, most of whom were sleeping in their homes nearby. It is estimated that more than 5,200 people died from exposure to the toxic gas. The Special Rapporteur reiterated concerns made in a press release on the issue in 2014.
Mr. Baskut Tuncak is the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.