Nearly 40 years on, still no remedy for victims of Swedish toxic waste – UN experts: Chile

OHCHR

UN human rights experts* said today they were deeply concerned by the continuous devastating impact on a local community of a dumping of toxic waste by a Swedish company in the northern Chilean city of Arica nearly 40 years ago.

The toxic waste – which remains outdoors, uncovered and exposed to nature’s elements – poses a health and security risk given its high content of arsenic, including to drinking water systems.

“The residents of Arica continue to suffer serious health problems caused by the waste dump,” the experts said. “The community has been denied access to justice for years, received little or no remediation, and even today those in need of medical care are ignored.

“And the human rights impacts suffered by the community will only become more pronounced with the passage of time.”

An estimated 12,000 people have been affected by the waste, and many have lost their lives, the experts said. Among the reported side-effects are cancer, joint pain, respiratory difficulties, allergies, anemia, miscarriage and birth defects. Some women of reproductive age who played on the waste pile as children have been unable to conceive.

The experts said authorities in both Sweden and Chile are responsible.

In 1984-1985, Swedish company Boliden Mineral AB dumped nearly 20,000 tonnes of toxic waste, containing high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead, in Arica. Boliden paid a local company, Promel Ltda., to receive the waste.

The experts said Sweden knew the waste was being dumped in Chile, but failed to act in line with its international obligations established under Decision-Recommendation (C(83)180) of  the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and customary international environmental law. They added that at the time of the first shipment, the import application received by Chilean authorities falsely read that the waste was not toxic.

In 2013, 796 Arica residents, including human rights defenders, started legal action in Sweden against Boliden. The Court of Appeal for Northern Norrland held that the claims of the victims were time limited, and the Swedish Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

This amounts to a denial of environmental justice, in breach of the right to a fair trial recognized in the European Convention on Human Rights, the experts said. Modern environmental legislations account for the latency periods of exposure to toxics (often decades long), and they establish that any time bar should be counted from the moment of evident manifestation of harm.

Additionally, the UN experts criticised the health authorities in Arica for allowing the import of toxic waste without conducting chemical analysis. The housing authorities also constructed homes in the area contaminated by the waste. These homes are still occupied today by Chilean nationals, migrants and asylum seekers who live in poverty or extreme poverty.

“Authorities in Sweden and Chile must cooperate and put an end to the long-standing human rights violations,” the experts said. As preparations for a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the seminal Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment are underway, the Arica victims continue to demand environmental justice.

“Urgent measures should be taken to return safely the hazardous waste to Sweden for proper disposal. Effective remedies should urgently be provided to current and former Arica residents, including adequate health care, relocation and access to adequate housing that can secure conditions for a dignified life.”

The UN independent experts have communicated their concerns related to this case in the following communication letters:

CHL 1/2021 of 23.03.2021; SWE2/2021 of 23.03.2021, OTH 90/2021 of 23.03.2021

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