Baskut Tuncak is a Lawyer & Scientist and former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxics. Baskut is the director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) where he leads the organisation’s efforts to advance safer and healthier environments and workplaces. From 2014-2020, he served as the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics, working closely with states, businesses, and international organisations to promote environmental and occupational rights. He is nominated to be a Research Professor in the Department of Public Health of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences at UMass Lowell. He continues to advise various organisations on the intersection of human rights, the environment and occupational health. We recently met up at a human rights gathering in Turkey, where he is currently based. We are also delighted to have Baskut join the Rights Studio’s group of Advisors.
Whose shoulders do you stand on?
It feels like everyone in some way… well, except those that are trying to hold me down.
What do you wish you had learned in school?
Power. Not the power equals force times mass times acceleration type of power, but more about systems of power in society. And deeper than just the simplification that money equals power. It would have been nice to spend a bit more time learning this, especially how to de-construct and reconstitute systems of power.
What have you learned recently that you want to share?
The importance of family and friends.
Where do you find inspiration?
I wish it was somewhere poetic like the chaos of nature, the calm of the city at night, the emotion of a powerful painting or something like that. For me, I find inspiration in seemingly randomest places, like when I am just walking down the hallway at home, which is where some of my favorite ideas have struck me.
When was the last time you changed your mind and what was it about?
That’s a hard one – I change my mind all the time. All the time. But on things I care deeply about, that is rare.
What should you apologise for?
Not appreciating friends and family as much as I should have.
What should you never apologise for?
Being human. If you have pure intentions and give something your all, pour your heart into it, you should never apologise for anything that does or does not result.
Do you have a daily practice?
My morning coffee ritual certainly, but hopefully soon it will be complemented by other daily practices.
When was the last time you laughed with a complete stranger?
I think it was at the airport, recalling an old Seinfeld episode.
What do you hope you never have to compromise on?
My values, and the quality of my coffee.
What role does music (other art form) play in your life?
It is the soundtrack to my life, to quote Kid Cudi. It always provides a bit of yin to my yang. Even if it is just the song in my head. Have you heard the album Cheat Codes? Takes me back to my younger days. So good.
What should we do upside down?
Is this a trick question?
A recent book you read that changed you?
Elmer the Elephant. I think it meant a lot more to me than my 1-year-old son. A wonderful story of finding yourself and being proud to be who you are.
What would the world look like if we stopped producing dangerous chemicals?
It would be transformative. So much of society’s toxic chemicals use is unnecessary. Safer options exit and, if not, can be developed. But policies have not adequately enabled innovation for decades. Instead, huge economies of scale have emerged. The disease and disability that results from toxic pollution and workplaces where toxic chemicals are used has been foisted on the most vulnerable in society, the least likely to stop the multitude of disproportionate exposures they are suffering from – at home, at work, even at school. The costs of inaction are massive, financially and psychologically. With better laws and policies we can remove these hurdles for safer alternatives to chemicals, creating a healthier, more equitable society. At TURI, we show businesses that alternatives exist, that better options can be developed. But often we need the power dynamics to shift as well.
A question on your legacy: for whom do you want to open the path?
Kiddos that would be otherwise born into environmental adversity. I hope I can in some small way help to open the path for future generations to no longer have their bodies pre-polluted and can realize their rights to the highest standard of health and maximum development.