Asbestos Showdown in Geneva 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The deliberations of hundreds of international delegates in Geneva and the actions of United Nations personnel involved in the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the Rotterdam Convention, which drew to a close on Friday, May 5, 2017, were closely monitored by the global community of campaigners working to prevent human exposures to dangerous chemicals such as chrysotile (white) asbestos. Despite knowledge of stakeholder treachery at previous COPs,1 there had been a glimmer of hope that this time a breakthrough might be achieved via an amendment to procedures that would allow the views of the many to defeat the interests of the few.2

Alas, this was not to be. A Russian-led cabal of asbestos vested interests came to Geneva spoiling for a fight. Their experience at COP7 (2015) had alerted them to the upscale of activity by asbestos victims, trade unionists and other partners to confront UN delegates with the harsh reality posed by the use of asbestos throughout the developing world.


Plenary session testimony by Indonesian asbestosis victim Siti Kristina.

Attempts made by Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Syria to overcome the opposition’s unified message – as voiced by representatives of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, the Global Asbestos Action Alliance, the IndustriALL Global Union, the Building and Wood Workers' International, Suisse Solidaire, Ban Asbestos Indonesia, the Occupational and Environmental Network of India, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, the Rotterdam Convention Alliance and others at COP8 – relied on worn out rhetoric and discredited fiction masquerading as fact.

During plenary sessions on May 2 and 3, national delegates parroted industry propaganda stating that “more scientific data and review” were needed before chrysotile could be designated as a toxic substance subject to trade restrictions. Despite COP8 President Perrez reiterating that all the criteria had been met for listing chrysotile on annex III, the existence of “conclusive and overwhelming” evidence of its carcinogenic nature as cited by a representative of the World Health Organization and vociferous support for listing from numerous delegations including Canada, formerly the world’s most prolific chrysotile supplier, the pro-asbestos bloc maintained the party line not only in vetoing inclusion but also in resisting an attempt by Nigeria – supported by Malawi, Nigeria, Cameroon, Yemen, Libya, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Norway, Switzerland, Yemen and the Maldives – to find a way around the impasse by amending Article 22 to allow decisions regarding annex III to be made by majority vote.3

The exasperation over the failure of the Convention to achieve its laudable objectives was felt by delegates as well as observers and representatives of civil society organizations who had set aside nearly two weeks of their lives – with just the odd rest day thrown in between April 24 and May 5 – for the 2017 back-to-back meetings of the Basel Convention, the Stockholm Convention and the Rotterdam Convention.4 Angered by the intransigence of the vested interests, Brian Kohler, Director of Health, Safety and Sustainability for the IndustriALL Global Union said:

“The Rotterdam Convention COP8 demonstrated nothing but moral cowardice and corruption. Hundreds of thousands will die as the result of the inaction of the Parties to the Convention, who chose to cave in to fierce lobbying and bullying by financial interests rather than do what they know is right. Shameful barely begins to describe their careless disregard for human life and health – life and health that they have been charged with protecting.”


COP8 asbestos demonstration.

During the first week, Cameroon had warned convention delegates about stakeholders “‘hijacking the process’ through their unwillingness to list chemicals, amend the Convention, or establish a contact group.”5 Members of the asbestos bloc were, indeed, behaving as Convention pirates, pursuing their own agendas no matter the cost to millions of people whose lives would be irretrievably damaged by exposure to dangerous and unregulated chemicals.6 Perhaps the Rotterdam Convention authorities might do well to study the rules of British football. After a foul is committed, the guilty player is cautioned by the referee and given a yellow card; a repeat infraction results in the player being sent off the pitch for the rest of the game. The behaviour exhibited by Russia and its accomplices at COP7 and COP8 is more than enough justification for suspending their membership of the Rotterdam Convention for the next COP. In their absence, much could be achieved.

May 10, 2017


1 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention - An Activist's Diary. May 21, 2013.

2 Kazan-Allen L. Rotterdam Convention: Make or Break. March 20, 2017.

3 Summary of the Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. Earth Negotiations Bulletin. May 8, 2017.

4 The objectives of the Convention are: “to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm; and to contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous chemicals, by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, by providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export, and by disseminating these decisions to parties.”

5 Summary of the Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. Earth Negotiations Bulletin. May 8, 2017.

6 At COP8, the listing of four chemicals – chrysotile, carbosulfan, fenthion and a paraquat formulation – was blocked by a handful of countries.



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