Reflecting on marine plastic pollution and Indigenous Peoples’ human right to health 

As the international negotiations continue on a new instrument on the full life-cycle of plastics pollution, it remains unclear to what extent human rights and marine plastics will be addressed by the new instrument. To further raise awareness about the transformative potential of taking these considerations more centrally into the negotiations, the Hub was invited to share reflections on the human right to health and Indigenous peoples’ human rights. 


The World Health Organisation organised a webinar on “Plastics and Indigenous Health in a One Health perspective” on 18 April 2024 to facilitate informed discussions and ensure that health considerations are effectively integrated into the plastic treaty. These dialogues provide Member States and other participants to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee with a platform to explore the intricate connections between health and plastics, ensuring that the treaty reflects these linkages effectively. 

WHO is contributing to the plastics negotiations, leveraging its mandate to address the impact of chemicals, waste, and pollution on human health, including through consideration of an inclusive and equitable One Health approach. In addition, WHO is concurrently building on the aims of a 2023 resolution adopted by the World Health Assembly on addressing the Health of Indigenous Peoples. 

The webinar speakers included: Maria Neira, Director, WHO Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health; Marcos  Orellana UNSpecial Rapporteur on toxics and human rights; BenjaminIllabaca De La Puente, Rapa Nui lawyer, legal adviser to the Municipality of Easter Island and the Rapa Nui Parliament; Catherine Machalaba, One Health High Level Expert Panel; Ravi Naidu, Laureate Professor and Founding Director of the University of Newcastle’s Global Centre for Environmental Remediation; Ana Paula Souza, Human Rights Officer at Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Peter Stoett, Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty. The webinar was moderated by Cristina Romanelli, WHO Biodiversity, Climate and Health Focal Point. 

Hub contributions 

Based on the legal research on human rights (including children’s rights) and ocean plastics and capacity building, as well as marine sciences in Ghana, the need to understand the environmental justice dimensions of it, with a focus on South Africa, Hub Director Elisa Morgera reflected on the still limited understanding of the multiple connections between the health and other human rights of Indigenous peoples and the ocean, which is crucial to understand how marine plastic pollution negatively impacts on the livelihoods, lives and cultures depend on marine resources and ecosystems, ensuring their health and well-being are adequately safeguarded. In particular, she called attention to both physical and mental health of Indigenous peoples, including across generations, and its connections to tangible and intangible ocean cultural heritage. 

Elisa recommended learning from the lived experiences and living memories, as well as the knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples, to protect their human right to health and their human right to science, including by setting priorities for scientific cooperation, international research and development funding, as well as opportunities to participate in science, as part of the plastics treaty obligations on capacity building and technology. She also recommended that the institutions that will be created by the plastics treaty should ensure conditions for equal and respectful engagement with different knowledge systems, address biases and not make them a burden for Indigenous peoples, including with the support of social science.  

Finally, Elisa recommended taking these considerations into account in the implementation of the recent decision by the World Health Assembly calling for the development of a comprehensive global action plan by 2026 dedicated to improving the health outcomes of Indigenous Peoples.  

If you are unfamiliar with ocean plastics, you are welcome to take our introductory Learning Pathway on the One Ocean Learn platform:

Photo: Nessim Stevenson

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action
  • Life below water