The Colombian newsmagazine Semana has published a transcript of a December 2006 telephone conversation, illegally intercepted by Colombian police, between BogotÃ¡’s foreign minister at the time, MarÃa Consuelo AraÃºjo, and her brother Sergio. (The minister resigned in February because of allegations that members of her family, including Sergio, worked closely with paramilitary groups.)
After Ms. AraÃºjo asks her brother to come to BogotÃ¡ to help her decorate her apartment, the conversation turns to a dispute brewing at the time between Colombia and Ecuador. The Quito government was blasting Colombia publicly for carrying out anti-drug herbicide fumigations along the two countries’ border, despite an early 2006 Colombian promise not to do so.
Sergio AraÃºjo: How have things gone with those Ecuadorians?
MarÃa Consuelo AraÃºjo: It’s that the Ecuadorians don’t understand… our territory, our coca, our glyphosate… and they don’t let us spray… the jodeterÃa [f***ing mess] is purely pressure from the FARC… Look, in Ecuador’s banana crop they use 800,000 gallons of glyphosate each year.
Sergio: And why don’t you say that?
MarÃa Consuelo: I’ve said that everywhere.
When the Colombia-Ecuador fumigation crisis ended (if it indeed has ended), the two countries agreed to a visit to the border zone by Paul Hunt, a New Zealander who is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to health. Hunt was in northern Ecuador last week; the Colombians denied him permission to investigate on their side of the border.
Hunt announced his preliminary conclusions at a press conference on Friday afternoon (MS Word .doc format). The UN special rapporteur’s words were strong, unequivocal, and contrast sharply with what Colombia’s foreign minister told her brother back in December.
They also contrast sharply with what the U.S. and Colombian governments have long insisted about glyphosate fumigation. The UN official has dealt a strong blow to the failed fumigation policy.
Here is the relevant excerpt, with emphases added.
In my opinion, there is an overwhelming case that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border should not re-commence. The studies already identified in earlier reports should be undertaken and completed. These are needed for a number of reasons, not least in relation to compensation. As President Uribe of Colombia is reported to have said on 30 April 2007, where damage is proven, compensation should be paid.
My UN report will set out the legal reasons for my opinion.
In summary, Colombia has a human rights responsibility of international assistance and cooperation, including in health. Consequently, as a minimum, Colombia must not jeopardise the enjoyment of the right to health in Ecuador. It must â€˜do no harmâ€™ to its neighbour.
There is credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying of glyphosate along the Colombia-Ecuador border damages the physical health of people living in Ecuador. There is also credible, reliable evidence that the aerial spraying damages their mental health. Military helicopters sometimes accompany the aerial spraying and the entire experience can be terrifying, especially for children. (Some children told me that, while they were in their school, it was sprayed.)
This evidence is sufficient to trigger the precautionary principle. Accordingly, the spraying should cease until it is clear that it does not damage human health.
It would be manifestly unfair to require Ecuador to prove that the spraying damages human health because Ecuador does not have access to essential information that is required to make that assessment. For example, Ecuador does not know the precise composition of the herbicide that Colombia is using. Thus, Colombia has the responsibility to show that the spraying damages neither human health nor the environment.
When Colombiaâ€™s international human rights responsibilities are read, in this way, with the precautionary principle, there is no doubt in my mind that Colombia should not recommence aerial spraying of glyphosate on its border with Ecuador. This legal argument may also apply to other relevant parties. In summary, to ensure conformity with its international human rights responsibilities, Colombia should respect a ten-kilometre no-spray zone along the border.
I accept that glyphosate is used in Ecuador, but there are at least two important distinctions between the Ecuadorian use of glyphosate and its use on the border by Colombia. First, I am informed that the Government of Colombia (or others on its behalf) adds some components to the glyphosate, in contrast to Ecuadorian policy and practice. Second, the general practice in Ecuador is to manually and directly apply the herbicide, whereas in Colombia aerial spraying is used on an extremely widespread basis. Thus, any suggested equivalence between Ecuadorian and Colombian practice is misleading and disingenuous.
The glyphosate aerial spraying issue has become deeply politicised. When an issue becomes politicised in this way, human rights are always among the first victims. The health and lives of ordinary people â€“ especially the most disadvantaged and poor â€“ are forgotten or obscured.
It is imperative that when considering this very important issue the human right to health â€“ at root, the well-being of disadvantaged individuals and communities – is placed at the centre of all decision-making.