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UN experts to intervene in Zambia lead pollution case

Women and children  collect water from a recently rehabilitated well point in Gwembe Valley, Zambia. (file)
© UNICEF/Karin Schermbrucke
Women and children collect water from a recently rehabilitated well point in Gwembe Valley, Zambia. (file)

UN experts to intervene in Zambia lead pollution case

Human Rights

A South African court has allowed a group of UN-appointed experts to intervene in a class action lawsuit against a mining company based in Zambia, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, reported on Thursday. 

The lawsuit against mining giant Anglo American was filed on behalf of women and children in Zambia’s central Kabwe District, who are the alleged victims of lead poisoning. 

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The UN experts - whose mandates cover issues such as toxic pollution and human rights, business and human rights, and discrimination against women and girls – had sought to intervene in the case. 

Duty of care 

The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg will this week hear arguments on whether the merits of the damages claim by the victims can be considered. 

The applicants allege that Anglo American South Africa, through its prior involvement in the activities of the local lead mine in Kabwe, assumed a duty of care towards residents, especially protection against lead exposure. 

“Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children,” the UN experts said. 

‘Profound’ health effects 

Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified it as one of 10 chemicals of major public health concern, needing action by countries to protect the health of workers, children and women of reproductive age. 

“According to the WHO, there is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects,” they added.  

“Young children can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects and disabilities, including in the development of the brain and the nervous system. Pregnant women's exposure to lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth and low birth weight.” 

Contrary to commitment 

The Court will consider arguments based on international human rights law, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, said the experts. 

The guidelines commit businesses to respect human rights, whilst addressing the adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity with which they are involved. 

They also highlight the importance of access to remedies in case of violations.  

The experts argued that Anglo American was acting contrary to its professed commitments to human rights in business when it opposes the Court even considering this class action.  

“Anglo American South Africa has voluntarily committed itself to follow the Guiding Principles, including the commitment to support access to justice where human rights impacts have occurred and to co-operate in processes designed to establish whether there is culpability for those impacts,” they said.  

The 13 experts were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and serve in their individual capacities. 

They are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.