Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ignoring Environmental Health Violates Human Rights

By Kathryn Cameron Porter

At first blush, the recent reports of an outbreak of avian flu in Eastern Turkey seem completely separate from the recent toxic chemical spills in China. It does not take long, however, to see that these distinct events thousands of miles away are linked a similar insidious theme: that the governments of Turkey and China hold their citizens in such low regard that they deliberately violate their basic human rights by denying them an opportunity to live in an environment – in the words of the UN Declaration on Human Rights – "adequate for health and well-being". These governments blatant disregard for the health of their citizens are even more egregious however because both countries have harmed, or have the potential to harm, citizens from other countries as well.

In Dogubayazit, Turkey, a Kurdish town about 20 miles from the Iranian border, three siblings died of bird flu in recent weeks after coming into contact with infected poultry. The number of cases has by now jumped to more than 20. Although the deadly flu’s significant westward jump from Southeast Asia, where it originated, should prod the government into immediate action to stop its spread toward Europe, help from the Turkish government hasn’t reached Eastern Turkey, home to the country’s Kurdish population.

According to Dogubayazit’s mayor, Mukkades Kubilay, Turkish authorities have left the local Kurdish council on its own to deal with the potential crisis. She also told the press that doctors will not enter the region unless they are bribed with money – something the local council cannot afford to do. Kubilay told Reuters, “state officials say they don’t distinguish between Turks and Kurds, but we feel the discrimination here…. I can honestly say the situation here is 20 to 30 percent worse than in other places hit by the disease. They are punishing the people.” Without the financial or medical resources to combat bird flu, the Turkey’s Kurds will likely face an increasing threat from the virus.

In China, four major chemical spills – one in November, one in December and two so far this month, have jeopardized drinking water and endangered public health on a grand scale. The first spill, caused by a petrochemical plant explosion in Jilin, sent a 50 mile surge of benzene into China’s Songhua River, creating an instant environmental disaster – one that local government officials kept secret from the public for more than a week before finally releasing the news. While this should not come as a surprise given China’s similar cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2003, it confirms the disheartening reality that certain members of the Chinese government show deadly apathy for the health of their own people. The other spills, a cadmium spill in Guangdong province, another one in Hunan province, and an oil spill in Shandong province’s Yellow River, offer ample evidence that environmental health is a low priority to the Chinese government.

The World Health Organization classifies access to clean drinking water as a global human right. Yet the World Bank reports that more than one billion people in the world lack a safe source of drinking water, meaning that nearly one-sixth of the world’s population is drinking water which is known to be contaminated and potentially deadly. The people living downstream of the recent spills now add to this staggeringly high number.

The linkage of environmental health with human rights is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1943, Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” laid out the theory of the Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid which has physiological needs at its base and self actualization at its peak. Clean water, fresh air, adequate nutrition and safe food supply all fall under the category of physiological needs, while spirituality and other intangibles are components of self actualization. Maslow states that until the needs at the bottom of the pyramid have been met, a person cannot even consider anything higher up in the hierarchy of needs; until environmental health is protected, people cannot exercise their basic human rights. For instance, someone afflicted with dysentery because of dirty water will be unable to go to his or her place of worship, just as someone dying of bird flu cannot participate in democracy.

The implications of bird flu and chemical spills go beyond borders. We inhabit a global society, where outbreaks and other environmental disasters quickly ripple outward from their epicenters. The human strain of bird flu will ultimately travel from Turkey into the rest of Europe, where it can mutate and become more contagious, fueling a global pandemic and costing countless lives. In China, poisonous water will flow into Russia, Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, putting people at risk for adverse health effects in those places as well.

There is no denying that in order to make forward progress, Turkey and China must adopt a new approach toward human rights. Taking accountability for environmental health would be an important step toward fixing these nations’ records, and showing that they care about their own people. Putting the emphasis on preventing health crises, rather than doing damage control after they have happened - or, in the case on Dogubayazit, doing nothing at all – is the key to meaningful change.


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