On March 17, 2021, the two UN Special Procedures on human rights and hazardous wastes, Mr. Orellana, and human rights and the environment, Mr. Boyd, issued communications to Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH) and China in relation to the approval for construction or extension of several coal-fired power plants in BiH by Chinese-State Owned Enterprises and with finance from the China Development Bank.
Civil society complained that the plants lead to water and air pollution, and negative effects on climate change. Amongst other complaints, it was noted that whilst air pollution is already a significant concern in BiH, especially in areas where coal fired plants are operating, new units and plants are still being planned and constructed. This will “negatively affect the air quality and public health for decades,” through emissions of PM2.5, NO2 and SO2, over hundreds of kilometers. Some adverse health impacts associated with one of the power stations (Tuzla) include thousands of cases of (chronic) bronchitis and asthma in children and adults, and over 150 hospitalizations for respiratory issues and cardiac arrest. It was also noted that the coal-fired plants negatively affect neighboring countries; under the Espoo Convention on EIA in a Transboundary Context, transboundary air pollution requires an IEA and a notification of neighboring countries about potential transboundary pollution from coal power plants.
According to the communication, the situation raises serious concerns about both BiH and China’s failure to meet “international human rights obligations for human and environmental rights.” This includes the human rights to a healthy environment, life, health, bodily integrity, safe drinking water and sanitation. Moreover, the construction and operation of the new coal fired power plants “exacerbate the already dangerous conditions of climate change by adding, and failing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” Several procedural environmental human rights were affected too, due to alleged failures to provide adequate information, access to justice and effective remedies on negative health impacts resulting from the plant’s emissions.
States bear obligations under the international human rights law framework to protect against human rights abuse within their territories and/or jurisdiction, by third parties, including business enterprises. Meeting these obligations requires States to take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish, and redress any abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations, and adjudication, including in the sphere of environmental protection. The international legal instruments which form the basis for obligations are set out in an Annex, and include protection of aforementioned rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Rights of the Child, the UNECE Aarhus Convention, the UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and Environment, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The communication reiterates applicability of HRC General Comment No. 36 on the right to life with dignity to environmental degradation, pollution and climate change (paras. 26, 62) and the importance of protecting underlying environmental determinants of health under Article 14 ICESCR and 24 CRC, and related general comments.
Communications of the Special Procedures are not binding and cannot afford direct remedies, but the communication asked both BiH and China to, inter alia: (a) indicate measures to ensure how the plants comply with applicable national law, international environmental laws, and international human rights standards, including the right to information; (b) harmonize procedures for environmental permitting and regulation systems, including by conducting environmental human rights impact assessments based on comprehensive and consistent standards; (c) provide information and monitor negative health impacts of the plant; and (d) prevent negative human rights and environmental outcomes, e.g. by enforcing the polluter pays principle. It asked China to provide information on the impacts and damages of the pollution caused by Chinese-supported coal powered plants on global climate change, the environment and local communities; or to provide information on measures to ensure that projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative contribute to the decarbonization of the host states of projects an do not compromise mitigation objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
BiH did not respond to the communication. China replied on May 27, 2021, by stating that “allegations of human rights violations by the project in question are not based on fact; they are purely false accusations.” According to China, it actively assumes international responsibility for climate change, including to the Green Silk Road. It always requires enterprises to carry out foreign projects in compliance with the laws of countries or regions where they are located, and financial institutions abide by the concept of green credit. Specifically, the Tuzla plant is intended to replace outdated local units, and meet environmental requirements under EU carbon emissions standards, with positive benefits for the environment and ‘huge’ local social and economic benefit through development and reliable energy supply.