August 26, 2016
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the so-called Probo Koala incident, a group of United Nations human rights experts,including the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, have sent an open letter to the government of Côte d’Ivoire urging it to address the ongoing human rights impacts of the incident, which involved the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan, the economic capital of this West African country.
The UN human rights experts also call on Trafigura, the company behind the incident, to support this process by disclosing all the information it has about the contents and nature of the waste dumped in Côte d’Ivoire, and its likely ongoing health and environmental consequences.
The Probo Koala incident
Ten years ago, on 19 August 2006, a major incident concerning the illegal dumping of toxic waste took place in the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). On this day, the cargo ship Probo Koala discharged 500 tonnes or the equivalent of over twelve 20 shipping containers of toxic waste in Abidjan. The hazardous substances, which belonged to the Anglo-Dutch commodity trading company Trafigura, were later dumped at 18 sites around the city while many other possible locations remain unknown to date. A month earlier, Trafigura decided not to dispose of the toxic waste in the Netherlands because proper disposal costs more.
According to official estimates, 15 people died, 69 people were hospitalized and over 108,000 others sought medical treatment after the incident. Ten years on, residents still complain of the smell from the waste when it rains heavily, as well as headaches, skin problems and respiratory issues that they believe are linked to the incident. Many victims have not received an adequate remedy for the harms caused by the incident and report that they are have not been able to afford medical treatment notably after October 2006 when the relevant free medical treatment finished. They still do not even know what was in the toxic waste; whether the dumpsites have been adequately cleaned-up, and whether the waste has entered the water supply or the food chain. Recognizing the lasting adverse impacts that hazardous materials can have on water and soils, there is real concern for food safety and the health of future generations.
Health and environmental impact
According to UN human rights experts, “the Government of Côte d’Ivoire must seize the opportunity of the 10th anniversary to address the long-term health and environmental impacts of the incident and seek additional financial and technical assistance from public health experts and the wider international community. In a post-conflict country such as the Côte d’Ivoire, it is even more vital for the international community to provide support for this work. Given their role in these events, the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom where Trafigura is registered, have a particular responsibility to do so.” It is estimated that only 63% of registered victims received compensation under a February 2007 settlement agreement between Trafigura and the Ivorian Government.
In November 2015, the Côte d’Ivoire government announced that it had completed the decontamination of all of the dumpsites. At the request of the government, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) performed an environmental audit of the dumpsites in July 2016 to verify their decontamination. UNEP is due to publish its results and recommendations at the end of the year. The government has also recently initiated a process to check the health of victims in one of the villages most affected by the dumping.
The UN experts write: “We welcome these steps and urge Côte d’Ivoire to communicate widely the results of UNEP’s findings, to affected communities in particular. We also urge the Ivorian authorities and the international community to take effective measures to protect the right to health and the right to a healthy environment of all victims and their families, including through free medical treatment for long-term health consequences and preventative measures for environmental threats. We urge Trafigura to facilitate this process by disclosing all information it has about the contents and nature of the waste and its likely health and environmental impacts.”