A UN expert today urged States to address human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and protect the environment by prohibiting its trade and use in such mining.
“In most parts of the world where mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, the human rights of miners, their families and communities, often living in abject poverty, are increasingly threatened by mercury contamination,” said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights in a report presented to the Human Rights Council.
The expert said indigenous peoples are particularly affected by the destruction and pollution of their territories, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and contamination of their food sources. Children are also disproportionately impacted by the dangerous work in the mines, sexual exploitation, and slavery-like conditions.
Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal that accumulates to dangerous levels in the food chain. Consumption of contaminated fish can cause neurological and behavioural disorders. Mercury can also pass through the placenta, increasing fetal risk of malformation and IQ loss. Mercury is persistent, generating contaminated sites for decades and centuries and affecting future generations.
“The use of mercury for small-scale gold mining is the main source of mercury pollution globally. The mercury trade is driven by the insatiable demand for gold in the financial and jewellery markets. Refineries purchase gold without adequate due diligence mechanisms to address human rights abuses,” Orellana said.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a robust agreement which aims to protect human health and the environment from emissions and releases of mercury.
Orellana said that despite its strengths, the Convention had shortcomings that limit its effectiveness in reducing and eliminating mercury use in small-scale gold mining. Thus, mercury releases and emissions from the small-scale gold mining sector have continued to increase, affecting the rights of vulnerable individuals, groups and peoples.
“In order to more effectively combat human rights violations related to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and protect the environment, States and the Convention should prohibit the use and trade of mercury in such mining. This will be an essential step towards strengthening other elements of the Convention and making them more effective,” the expert said.