Environment Program Assists UN Expert on the Right to Science

September 2021

The Vance Center Environment Program assisted the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics, Dr. Marcos Orellana, in preparing a report delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council this month. Dr. Orellana’s report addressed the right to science in the context of toxic and hazardous substances.

As scientific expertise is increasingly attacked and undermined through disinformation campaigns, the development of recommendations and jurisprudence on the right to science is more urgent than ever. In his report, Dr. Orellana concluded that science is a crucial component of government policies that guarantee human rights protections, and that challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic “underscore the importance of global cooperation and solidarity.”

Nevertheless, the right to science has come under attack by governments and business interests which spread disinformation and adopt “tactics of denial, diversion and distortion” that result in the under-regulation of toxic and hazardous substances such as asbestos and “forever chemicals.” As Dr. Orellana’s report demonstrates, the failure to appropriately regulate these products can amount to a violation of several human rights.

The right to science derives from the 1966 International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, which protects the right of all persons “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its application.” Dr. Orellana’s report concludes that this right requires states to align policies with the best available scientific evidence, provide for participatory decision making, and combat disinformation. The report also contains an extensive set of recommendations addressed to governments, businesses, and international bodies.

The Vance Center worked together with four law firms as co-counsels, including Winston & Strawn, to provide a set of comparative case studies which illustrated the consequences of violations of the right to science. This extensive set of case studies spanned six countries across four continents and helped inform the standards and best practices recommended by the Special Rapporteur. A law firm co-counsel also provided advice on the relationship between the right to science and the precautionary principle, a foundational principle of international environmental law that is extensively discussed in Dr. Orellana’s report. The Environment Program has assisted Dr. Orellana on several matters, including an amicus brief recently submitted to the Constitutional Court of Colombia.