Rotterdam Convention 2013 – an Activist's Diary 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

Earlier this month (May 6-10, 2013), I was part of a group of civil society representatives who were accorded observer status at the 6th Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the Rotterdam Convention (RC).1 The substantive developments I witnessed during that time were summarized in a series of frontline reports written in Geneva under difficult conditions.2 The more expansive illustrated text which follows aims to highlight the input and experiences of civil society activists at COP6 with a particular emphasis on the participation and views of individuals involved in global action on asbestos.

Monday, May 6, 2013: Arrival / Registration/ Introductions

Asbestos activists arrived throughout the day and met with colleagues from the Rotterdam Convention Alliance (ROCA)3 at the International Conference Center near the United Nations headquarters and the Place des Nations at 6 p.m. The informal meeting in the NGO room provided us with the opportunity to introduce ourselves to new members of the group.

The COP6 observers with a primary focus on the chrysotile asbestos issue were: Sugio Furuya (Japan), Fernanda Giannasi (Brazil), Dr. Barry Castleman (U.S.), Kathleen Ruff (Canada), Alessandro Pugno (Italy), Laurie Kazan-Allen and Bill Lawrence (Britain);4 other observers with a wider brief which included chrysotile were Sascha Gabizon and Alexandra Caterbow from Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF, Germany), Dr. Vladimir Kototenko from Ecological Movement “BIOM,” in Kyrgyzstan, Elina Doszhanova from Social-Ecological Fund, Kazakhstan and Emmanuel Odjam-Akumatey from Ghana.

The ROCA booth was assembled in the foyer of the conference hall. Copies of the ROCA Position Paper on Chrysotile were made available as was other asbestos literature. The ROCA banner “All Asbestos Kills” was hung across the center of the booth along with a banner by UK asbestos campaigners calling for “Justice for All Asbestos Victims.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013: ROCA Morning Briefing

ROCA members gathered at 8 a.m. in the NGO room to take part in discussions with other groups. The proceedings of the Convention meetings are highly structured as well as complex with serious constraints on what observers can and cannot do. Can an NGO representative make an intervention at a plenary session? Can photographs be taken? Can observers wear tee shirts with slogans, engage in direct conversation with delegates, take part in contact groups or regional meetings, distribute campaign material? Fortunately for the asbestos group, some of whom were new to this process, there was a vast amount of available expertise amongst the NGO delegations.

May 7, 2013: First RC Plenary Session and Demonstration

The first plenary session of the Convention began at 10 a.m. The first three hours were spent discussing procedural matters. As the meeting adjourned for lunch we exited the building to meet up with busloads of French, Italian, Swiss and German asbestos victims, family members and activists who had travelled to Geneva to demand that chrysotile asbestos be designated as a hazardous substance under the rules of the Rotterdam Convention.

 


They brought with them banners, masks, posters and even a full-size French flag. It was a noisy and colourful event that attracted the attention of the public and members of the foreign as well as local press. The protest was mentioned in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), the official publication of COP6, and two photographs from the demonstration were included in the ENB's round-up of the first day's activities.5 An informal survey undertaken noted representation at the demonstration from Britain, Holland, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, Canada, the U.S. and Japan.

 


During the manifestation Pierre Pluta (the speaker pictured above), President of ANDEVA, a national body representing regional French asbestos victims groups, denounced the actions of the Russian-led veto on chrysotile; his colleague Alain Bobbio reiterated the call for chrysotile to be listed, highlighting the high incidence of asbestos mortality in France.

 


Bruno Pesce (pictured above), one of the leaders of a high-profile asbestos victims' group from Casale Monferrato (AFeVA), spoke of the tragedy asbestos had caused in towns throughout Italy. Messages of solidarity were related by Fernanda Giannasi, Kathleen Ruff, Alexandra Caterbow, Laurie Kazan-Allen and Bill Lawrence. A member of the COP6 French delegation addressed the demonstrators even as Swiss, Italian and French journalists conducted on-the-spot interviews with protestors. Representatives of CAOVA, a Swiss asbestos victims' group, distributed material in French, Italian and English calling for an end to the five-fold asbestos scandal:

  1. The scandal of dirty bosses;
  2. The scandal of lax courts;
  3. The scandal of fearful governments;
  4. The scandal of insurance tricksters;
  5. The scandal of occupational physicians.6

May 7, 2013: Afternoon Plenary Session

Shortly after the afternoon plenary session began, the discussion turned to chrysotile. From 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. we listened open-mouthed as delegations from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and India stated their intention to block the listing of chrysotile (See Appendix). There was no question that this was a well-orchestrated political campaign which had been spearheaded by Russia.7

 


As the so-called “Dirty 7” held the Convention to ransom, the decision was taken to make an intervention. I was chosen to voice the position of civil society and in particular to bring the voice of the victims into the plenary chamber. As interventions are restricted to two minutes, drafting the text was not easy. Fortunately, this was achieved through a collaborative effort with Fernanda Giannasi, Kathleen Ruff and Alexandra Caterbow.

We had the final version of the text prepared but it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be recognized. As time slipped away we held our NGO sign aloft hoping to catch the eye of the RC COP6 President, Magdalena Balicka. Finally we were given the floor. Conscious of my duty to friends and colleagues whose lives had been sacrificed to asbestos, I read out our statement. “The world is watching what is being done in this chamber,” I said. “To safeguard human health and preserve the Rotterdam Convention, we urge every Party to support the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III” (See full text of statement).

 


Laurie Kazan-Allen making a Plenary Session intervention.

Delivering the 171 words of this intervention was achieved within the allotted time span. The sentiments conveyed resonated around the chamber as delegates applauded our statement. After this intervention, the afternoon plenary session was brought to a close.

May 7, 2013: Contact Group Meeting on Candidate Chemicals

At COP5, progress on chrysotile was achieved during contact group meetings on candidate chemicals co-chaired by Karel Blaha and Hala Al-Easa; the strong leadership they provided set the parameters of the discussion and allowed diverse voices to be heard. Unfortunately, such was not the case at COP6. The asbestos industry's arguments were being trotted out ad nauseum by the “Dirty 7” on Tuesday afternoon/evening at a contact group meeting. It seemed like a congressional filibuster; if the asbestos blockers could talk long enough, time would run out and nothing would be resolved. Despite some well-intentioned interventions, this is, more or less, what happened.8 Unfortunately, the co-chairs of this session proved unable to exert control over the proceedings. It was disheartening to watch but not surprising.

May 8, 2013: ROCA Morning Briefing

As we entered the building, we were greeted by a pile of glossy asbestos industry propaganda magazines (12 pages in full color) which had been translated into English. Entitled – in screaming capitals – PEOPLE FOR CHRYSOTILE they extolled the health-giving benefits of all things chrysotile.

 


Article after article praised the benefits of the asbestos industry and the “life” it had given to people who lived in the Russian town of “Asbest.” As well as conveying the chrysotile party line, the publication attacked the anti-asbestos campaign as “evil.” This was the word used by Natalia Karavayeva, Vice Principal of the Asbest Polytechnic School. The article by Sofia Shkarednaya, Veteran of the Chrysotile Industry, went so far as to blame the current European Union economic crisis on the EU asbestos ban

Having collected this material, we proceeded to the NGO room for the 8 a.m. ROCA briefing; over the next hour, we considered the likely impact of what we had witnessed the day before. May 8, the second day of the RC COP6 was, in fact, the 10th day that delegates had been taking part in the first SuperCOP, back-to-back conferences for the Basel Convention COP11, the Stockholm Convention COP6 and the RC COP6. In fact, some sessions related to the Basel Convention, took place during the days earmarked for the RC. It was as confusing as it sounds. Suffice to say, however, that by the time the RC proceedings began, many of the delegates were going stir crazy. The fact that the chrysotile impasse at RC COP6 appeared to have worsened since 2011 led to a sense of “profound frustration” that could, in the absence of strong leadership, become stagnation.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013: Presentation of Asbestos Victims' Letter to COP6 RC President

On Wednesday, Alessandro Pugno and Alexandra Caterbow presented President Balicka with a copy of a letter from AFeVA, an Italian asbestos victim's group from the town of Casale Monferrato.

 


Alexandra Caterbow, President Balicka and Alessandro Pugno.

This letter had been signed by 28 asbestos victims' support groups in 15 countries on five continents and called on the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention to “support putting chrysotile asbestos on the Convention's list of hazardous substance.”

“All Parties to the Convention have a duty to practice responsible trade and to respect the right to prior informed consent. We, who have witnessed at first hand the terrible suffering and death caused by asbestos, urgently call on every Party to the Convention to support placing chrysotile asbestos on the Convention's list of hazardous substances.”9

May 8, 2013: ROCA Asbestos Side Event10

An asbestos side event (1:15-3 p.m.) provided an opportunity to inform COP6 participants of the asbestos reality in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Dozens of delegates from Iran, Bahrain, Malaysia, Egypt, Laos, and Tunisia were joined by representatives of civil society to hear veteran campaigner Sugio Furuya from Japan, Engineer Fernanda Giannasi from Brazil, Italian filmmaker Alessandro Pugno and others describe the humanitarian disasters caused by asbestos in their countries.

 


Speaking as the Coordinator of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, Sugio (pictured above) addressed not only the Japanese situation but the impact that asbestos use was having throughout Asian countries in his presentation entitled “List Chrysotile Asbestos, Save Rotterdam Convention.”11 The deadly consequences of asbestos exposure have been observed amongst factory workers, relatives exposed to contaminated work clothes and people with homes near asbestos-processing plants and mines. Citing the asbestos tragedy of a Belgian family which lived near the Eternit asbestos factory in Kapelle-op-den-Bos and Japanese epidemiological research documenting the fallout from the Kubota asbestos plant in Amagasaki City, Sugio said that asbestos is a threat to both occupational and public health. Asbestos contamination following the 2011 East Japan Great Earthquake and Tsunami and other disasters revealed, the speaker said, the fallacy of asbestos industry arguments which allege that asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions. “The right to know,” Sugio concluded “is a basic human right and a starting point for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.” The Rotterdam Convention was established to ensure that populations are provided with information about hazardous substances so that they might make informed decisions.

 


Brazilian Factory Inspector Fernanda Giannasi echoed the comments of the previous speaker when she said “There is no controlled use of asbestos; this is a fallacy.” Her presentation The Geopolitics of Asbestos12 followed the asbestos production chain in Brazil, a country which mines, uses and exports chrysotile asbestos. Fernanda showed photographs from factories and workshops which revealed hazardous exposures in Brazilian workplaces. Documentation and photographs of asbestos shipments destined for Asia illustrated the lack of controls in place to protect developing countries from the threat posed by importing Brazilian asbestos. Brazilians were also at risk from the import of insulation and sealing products made of asbestos-containing textiles from China; these goods were being distributed throughout the country without warning labels or information advising users or consumers of their toxic nature.

The issue of disposing of asbestos waste was also considered by Fernanda who said that in the five Brazilian states which have banned asbestos this is both problematic and expensive. Despite ongoing legal and judicial challenges being mounted in Brazil regarding asbestos, national stakeholders continue to threaten campaigners and collude with foreign vested interests. Fernanda greeted her Brazilian colleague Itaci de Sá, a representative of a trade union allied with the asbestos industry, who along with Russian asbestos lobbyists, was present at the asbestos side event. Concluding her talk she expressed the hope that on the fourth attempt, chrysotile would be included in Annex III.13

Alessandro Pugno, a resident from an Italian town decimated by asbestos cancer, was the next speaker. By way of introduction, he explained that his involvement with the campaign for asbestos justice was a personal one; thirteen years ago, he had watched his beloved step-father die from asbestos cancer. Alessandro showed a short extract from the film: “Dust – The Great Asbestos Trial” to illustrate the price paid by ordinary Italians for the profits of asbestos companies.14

From Eastern Europe, speakers Dr. Vladimir Kototenko and Elina Doszhanova described the almost total lack of public and professional awareness of the asbestos hazard in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

 


In Kyrgyzstan you can, Vladimir said, buy asbestos products everywhere. The material in his presentation was reinforced by an English language leaflet he made available to the meeting entitled: Asbestos in Kyrgyzstan.15 Asbestos, which is imported to the Kyrgyz Republic from neighbouring countries, has been used for the manufacture of fireproofing, insulation and building products for more than fifty years. There are no regulations for the disposal of asbestos-contaminated waste. Citing evidence from the WHO, the ILO, the European Union and other international bodies, Vladimir pointed out that “all types of asbestos are hazardous.” Work undertaken by the Bishkek-based NGO “BIOM,” is ongoing to quantify the national asbestos hazard and engage with government officials and civil society regarding the implementation of occupational and environmental safeguards.16 Recommendations are being made within the framework of the “Program and the Governmental Plan for Transition to Sustainable Development (2013-2017)” for action to be taken.

Elina Doszhanova from the Social-Ecological Fund in Kazakhstan said that her country is a major producer of hazardous waste generating 145 million tonnes per year in the mining of 214,000 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos and the processing of 20,000 tonnes+ at facilities throughout the country.17 There are no health statistics on the human impact of asbestos exposures and no monitoring of occupational or environmental asbestos levels. From 2009 to 2011, a project was mounted by NGOs to raise awareness of the threat posed by chrysotile asbestos in Kazakhstan; it aimed to generate public and political support for the implementation of measures to minimize hazardous exposures. This year Kazakhstan is consulting on its first Asbestos Regulation; the current draft of this legislation includes requirements to safeguard workers handling asbestos-containing waste and impose standards to ensure the “safe management” of the toxic waste.

Sasha Gabizon, from Women in Europe for a Common Future, chaired the asbestos side event. At the end of each presentation she opened the floor to COP6 delegates. A range of questions were posed which covered issues including: the availability of asbestos-free products; the price differential between asbestos-containing products and safer substitutes; dealing with asbestos-contaminated waste; effective measures for the eradication of the asbestos threat and evidence regarding the link between asbestos exposure and cancer. Throughout the session, Russian asbestos lobbyist Andrei Kholzakov made several attempts to intervene. At one point he stood up and brandished a piece of asbestos propaganda headlined “People for Chrysotile.”

 


Kholzakov was asked by the chair to wait his turn as the floor was currently open to delegates and not observers. At that point he sat down only to rise up again some while later and shout: “I have not heard a single word of truth” from these individuals. Branding the panel of speakers “liars,” he turned his back on the presenters and addressed his remarks to delegates sitting at the back of the room. He refused to use a microphone and so screamed out loudly boasting that a Russian trade unionist does not need a microphone to be heard. We were later informed that delegates in the plenary chamber next door had heard the outburst.

 


Andrei Kholzakov and Dmitrii Selyanin at ROCA asbestos side event.

Andrei Kholzakov and Dmitrii Selyanin were attending COP6 in their capacity as Chairman and Adviser, respectively, of the International Chrysotile Alliance of Trade Unions (Alliance). While many other civil society representatives were frustrated by developments which occurred in Geneva no one else behaved as Kholzakov did. However, this was not the first time I had witnessed attempts by the Alliance to browbeat speakers into submission. In 2008, at the International Labor Organization Conference in Korea an Alliance spokesman accused ban asbestos campaigners of mendacity and corruption during a presentation at the International Social Security Association Asbestos Symposium (June 30, 2008). Two days later, Alliance bullies attempted to disrupt the proceedings of a symposium organized by the Building and Woodworkers International entitled Asbestos: International Trade Union Campaign on Eliminating Asbestos Use and Preventing Asbestos Disease. A report of what took place in 2008 noted that:

the Alliance came to Seoul spoiling for a fight… Having had several opportunities in Seoul to present their arguments, they were clearly unwilling to allow others the same freedom. They came to the session organized by the Building and Woodworkers International armed with a banner saying: “Trade Unions Stand for the Controlled Use of Chrysotile,” in English and Korean…

Towards the end of the symposium, Alliance member Dmitrii Selyanin stood up at the front of the room and held this sign aloft as he turned to face delegates sitting in the rows behind him. The impropriety of this behaviour, the subsequent disruption of the meeting and the presence of so many members of the Alliance delegation in the room motivated the session moderator to put out a call for security guards to come to Room 402. In the end, reason prevailed and the session ended without violence.” 18

When Kholzakov had vented his spleen Itaci de Sá, a Brazilian representative of the Building, Wood and Ceramic Workers' Trade Union [Sindicato dos Trabalhadores nas Indústrias da construção, do Mobiliário e de Cermica de Criciúma], asked to be recognized.

 


Itaci de Sá (left).

With the services of a translator, he said that not one case of asbestos-related disease had been identified amongst the workers at his asbestos factory in Criciúma, Santa Catarina State. Fernanda agreed that this was true, but then went on to explain that this was because the factory was owned by a company which had obtained a judicial exemption allowing it not to disclose to health authorities details of asbestos-related illness amongst the workforce.

May 8, 2013: Afternoon Plenary Session

A report back to the plenary session by Bjorn Hansen, Co-Chair of the May 7 contact group meeting on candidate chemicals, summed up what we had seen the day before. Hansen confirmed that there had been no shift in the positions of Russia et al during the contact group meeting and that Russia was adamant that chrysotile should be removed from the agenda of future COPs. Hansen's comments were summed up by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin as follows:

“parties opposed to listing either paraquat or chrysotile asbestos had concerns on the science, alternatives and implications for trade. He noted that there was agreement in the contact group that the concerns 'were not part of the Convention's normal working practices,' but said that this did not deter those opposed to listing… On chrysotile asbestos, he reported that there was no consensus, and requested further guidance from President Balicka on how to move forward.”19

It was left to delegates who had attended the contact group to voice the true nature of the stonewalling which had taken place the day before. There was, said one, a great deal of misunderstanding about the terms of reference of the Rotterdam Convention. There was, said another, a complete denial by industry stakeholders about the true cost of asbestos use including the devastating impact on human beings and the huge financial bill for medical care of the asbestos-injured and removal and dumping costs of contaminated products. One of the more outspoken delegates said that many of the disingenuous interventions at the contact group were motivated by a desire to protect national industries. The summary of the RC COP6 proceedings by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin picked up on this:

“Ultimately, the listing of both paraquat and chrysotile asbestos were blocked by countries with economic interests in restricting awareness of the risks posed by substances that meet all the criteria for listing in the convention to which they are parties.”

Thursday May 9, 2013: Morning Plenary Session

After nearly one hour of discussion, at 11 a.m. the plenary session again turned its attention to chrysotile. President Balicka said that it had not been possible to achieve consensus on listing. Taking into account the rules of the Rotterdam Convention, this issue would be put on the agenda for COP7. She once again asked those opposed to listing to restate their arguments. Russia, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, India and Kazakhstan confirmed their vetoes on including chrysotile in Annex III, claiming that in the absence of scientific evidence regarding the hazards, this action was unwarranted. As we digested the industry bilge we were hearing from five of the “Dirty 7,” it seemed as if the chamber had been swamped by a tidal wave of hopelessness which had paralyzed the will to take action and the verbal capacity of delegates, the vast majority of whom supported listing chrysotile. Finally, the Australian delegation was recognized by the President.

Spokesman Andrew McNee made a succinct and cogent argument (See full text of Australian Statement) that highlighted the immense economic and human cost to Australians of his country's asbestos heritage. McNee concluded by stating:

“In summary, the criteria for listing have been met, this is not a ban, the costs of listing are negligible, but the costs of inaction are potentially huge. The reasons given for standing in the way of this process are not tenable or defensible given what the Convention is and what it is not.

We urge that Parties reconsider their views, and noting… that all requirements for listing are met, chrysotile asbestos must be listed in Annex III of the Convention to enable the process of information sharing to begin.”

The impact of this intervention spread around the chamber as one country after another raised their flag to express support for Australia's position. Those that stood up to be counted included: the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Cameroon, Gabon, Kenya, Costa Rica, Liberia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Sudan, Israel, Benin, Paraguay, El Salvador and Qatar. Following a recommendation by Costa Rica, seconded by El Salvador, countries were requested to raise their flags if they wished to show support for the Australian statement. This "virtually unprecedented" action made clear the overwhelming desire of the majority of Convention Parties to designate chrysotile as a hazardous substance.

 


The atmosphere of frustration and impotence which had, just a few moments earlier, dominated the chamber evaporated during the expressions of support for Australia's call to arms. Of course, it was too little too late but for the very briefest of moments, delegates had seized back control from the asbestos bullies. Clearly this show of defiance could not go unchallenged and Russia objected to the procedure of asking parties to raise their flags. On this occasion, Russia was supported by China which, however, noted its support for listing chrysotile asbestos.

 


ROCA Observers with Australian delegation.

Friday, May 10, 2013: ROCA Morning Briefing

Work on a joint press release which had progressed Thursday evening via a flurry of email exchanges, continued during the ROCA morning meeting. When the final document was agreed, the English text was emailed to contacts for translation into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Russian. Obtaining and placing the logos of the groups issuing the statement proved a bit troublesome but thanks to the IT skills of one of the younger members of our group, this was achieved fairly quickly. The press release was then distributed through our networks via email and social media platforms. The headline of the document pretty much said it all: “Rotterdam Convention in crisis, say civil society groups. Handful of countries highjack international agreement, intended to protect human health and environment.” Not listing chrysotile asbestos was, according to Dr. Barry Castleman, a “crime against humanity and the whole world should be scandalized.” Elina Doszhanova from Kazakhstan warned that the “cost of inaction will be huge,” while Emmanuel Odjam-Akumatey from Ghana said that: “The credibility of the Convention, and all 152 countries who have ratified the Convention, is at stake.”

May 10, 2013: ROCA Press Conference

Our press conference was scheduled to take place in Room 3 at 2:30 p.m. directly after the official press conference for the Rotterdam Convention. It was interesting to hear the positive spin that RC officials were trying to put on “the achievements of COP6.” Franz Perrez President of the joint COP and head of the Swiss delegation to the RC, told journalists:

“There were some outcomes that people would have liked to see that didn't happen. And there may be a tendency to magnify that because there were three conventions meeting this week. It shouldn't take away from the great successes that the Rotterdam Convention has had. Adding this group of four chemicals is a particular success because they are known to be quite bad chemicals.” 20

Commenting on the chrysotile fiasco, Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said:

“It's very easy to say we've failed. But the fact of the matter is that asbestos essentially has no future… Do you really believe that after everything that has been discussed here [industry] will invest in this material in the future? No, and in that sense the convention has a direct and indirect value in signalling what are the substances that are not likely to be in the global marketplace in the near or middle term.”

 


Fernanda Giannasi (second from left) speaking at the ROCA press conference.

For the final time at COP6, a ROCA session was chaired by Sascha Gabizon who yet again was confronted by the hulking presence of Russian asbestos lobbyists Andrei Kholzakov and Dmitrii Selyanin.

 


Dmitrii Selyanin and Andrei Kholzakov.

Our panel of speakers commented briefly on what had taken place in Geneva with the emphasis on the chrysotile debacle we had witnessed first-hand. Chela Vazquez of Pesticide Action Network, Latin America detailed the disastrous impact not listing paraquat would have in developing countries, while Alexandra Caterbow discussed procedural failings inherent in the Rotterdam Convention process. When Sasha Gabizon opened the floor to the press, Andrei Kholzakov demanded to be heard. As the Chair gave priority to journalists, Kholzakov repeated his demand. Journalists in the room asked for clarification regarding Kholzakov's status. When they learned that he was not an accredited member of the press, they said he should leave the room immediately; failure to do so would, it was said, result in security being called. The lobbyists exited the room.

An article which appeared on May 17, 2013 referencing the ROCA press conference was entitled: “Joint Chemical Conference Disappoints Those Seeking Action on Asbestos, Paraquat.” Journalist Daniel Pruzin included quotes from two of our panellists:

  • Activist groups were, said Kathleen Ruff, “very disturbed that this conference has so greatly damaged the credibility of the Rotterdam Convention. We have seen abuse of the convention by these seven countries that have raised arguments that are extraneous and irrelevant to the convention… It is very clear that they [Russia and Zimbabwe] are concerned about their commercial interests and their asbestos industry…. It appears clear to us they have ratified the convention in order to wreck it.”
  • Barry Castleman's statement was quoted as follows: “India has a very powerful asbestos industry, and the use of asbestos is going up rapidly… In order to maintain its profitability, the industry has to avoid the cost of prevention and compensation [to workers]… There are members of Parliament in India who have financial interests in the asbestos industry, and there are asbestos companies that have media interests in India. This is why India has played a leading role at the COP in blocking the listing not only of asbestos but also of paraquat at this conference.”

London, UK, May 20, 2013

It is now ten days since COP6 has ended. Having had time to reflect of what took place in Geneva, several things have become clear. As an asbestos activist, it was a sobering experience to observe the machinations of the asbestos stakeholder governments in Geneva and the orchestrated moves put in play by 18 asbestos lobbyists from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Canada, India, Vietnam, Brazil and Mexico who were registered observers. With the recent leadership transition of the asbestos propaganda campaign from Canada to Russia a huge upscaling of activities has taken place. The mobilization of asbestos-producing communities in Russia, Kazakhstan and Brazil has been conducted on a monumental scale with industry-sponsored marches, car rallies, outreach projects and other photo opportunities being detailed at great length in glossy new multilingual propaganda material. The attempt to create a groundswell of support for the asbestos industry has found a supportive audience amongst people whose livelihoods are, purportedly, at risk from listing chrysotile in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. Of course, industry lobbyists know that including chrysotile on Annex III does not equate to a ban. Nevertheless, as it is a ban which is feared by mining communities, the threat of a ban is central to the asbestos lobby's message

The Rotterdam Convention cannot fulfil its obligations to progress environmental justice in the face of such determined opposition. COP6 has, once and for all, made clear the untenable position of the Convention. For the fourth time a substance which has met all the criteria for listing has been rejected by parties with vested economic interests. Even the most optimistic of souls cannot believe that anything will be different at COP7. As the Australian delegation intimated in their intervention on May 7, failure of COP6 to list chrysotile would set in train efforts for “other options” to achieve the Rotterdam Convention's objectives. Denied the opportunity to give prior informed consent under the Rotterdam Convention, developing countries will have to look elsewhere for guidance. The advice they are most likely to receive from the international community is to impose national asbestos bans. The Russian chrysotile gang may very well find that their behaviour at COP6 has achieved the exact opposite of what they had intended. At the best, they have gained a short moratorium on a chrysotile ban, at the worst they have seriously damaged international relationships and jeopardized future trading agreements.

After COP6, the asbestos lobby can be in no doubt about the existence of a broad-based civil society coalition determined to end the worldwide epidemic of asbestos-related diseases. Work has already begun on framing new partnerships to create international protocols that would, unlike the Rotterdam Convention, be able to effectively impact the global asbestos trade, and eventually end the misery it causes. At the Rotterdam Convention press conference, Achim Steiner said “the fact of the matter is that asbestos essentially has no future.” Although I believe that the Rotterdam Convention will have no part in that outcome, I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. An asbestos-free future is possible.

 
_______________________________________________________________________________

Appendix

Highlights of Plenary Session Discussion on Listing Chrysotile Asbestos on May 7, 201321

“Listing a chemical does not prohibit trade between exporting and importing countries… This Convention is intended to provide importers with information to make informed decisions…. This chemical has been debated long enough for all parties to this Convention to be fully aware of its properties… Keeping it [listing of chrysotile] in full debate only serves to keep it in the public eye even more.”

– President of COP6: Magdalena Balicka

Abridged positions and views expressed by delegates (in chronological order):

Canada: “Canada will not oppose listing of chrysotile.”

Lebanon: “Lebanon supports inclusion of chrysotile.”

Ukraine: Opposing the listing of chrysotile, Ukraine referenced conclusions reached by 19 participants at the November 2012 chrysotile conference in Kiev which stated that: the scientific evidence regarding the chrysotile hazard was insufficient for chrysotile to be listed; the majority of chrysotile alternatives had not been sufficiently studied to assess the health hazards; alternatives could be more dangerous than chrysotile.

India: Opposing listing, India cited research by the National Institute of Occupational Health which “proved” that asbestos use in India was being achieved within permissible levels of exposure. There was, the delegate said, no significant environmental or work hazard posed by the use of chrysotile and therefore there was no need to include chrysotile in Annex III. Listing chrysotile would lead to increasing costs of trade which would result in a de facto asbestos ban.

Kenya: As well as stating that “The African Group, except Zimbabwe, supports listing,” the spokesperson for the group expanded on the majority view:

“The African Group specially supports the listing of chrysotile Asbestos as recommended by the CRC [Chemical Review Committee] because of the risk evaluation done on this material. It is confirmed that it has effects on human health one of it being that it is carcinogenic according to the notification submitted by Chile, Australia and the European Union and therefore strongly recommends its listing in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. This is so that parties can make informed decisions on the future shipments of this material.

The African group understands the special needs of one of its party members [Zimbabwe] and is making this statement so that this member can have urgent technical support in its transition to safe alternative to this compound.”

Israel: “Israel supports inclusion.”

Bahrain: “No objection to listing.”

Jordan: “Jordan supports listing. Since 2005, we banned all asbestos.”

Russian Federation: Opposing listing, the Russian delegate said: “Russia wants to note that this [subject] has been considered many times [and] no consensus has been achieved. Countries have well-founded reasons to object.” Contending that there had been no consensus despite all attempts, she continued: “the time has come to acknowledge this. The Conference of the Parties must remove this [subject] from further discussion. This would strengthen the Convention.”

Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan objected to listing, citing lack of sufficient scientific grounds.

Australia: Reminding delegates that the Rotterdam Convention required only “modest action” to be taken when a hazardous substance was identified in order to allow Parties to make informed decisions about use, the Australian delegate pointed out that Australia had the highest per capita incidence of asbestos-related diseases in the world, and that in the next 20 years, it was predicted that up to 40,000 more Australians would die from such diseases. In view of this, Australia was concerned about the impact of asbestos on other countries and for this reason, felt that chrysotile must be listed. All the criteria for listing had been met. It was unfortunate that listing was not achieved at COP5; should the impasse continue at COP6, Australia would be open to “all other options” to achieve the Rotterdam Convention objectives through other means.

Zimbabwe: It was the view of Zimbabwe that there had been no new scientific evidence to justify the listing of chrysotile [since COP5]. Scientific facts did not support the listing of chrysotile. The use of chrysotile which was not contaminated with amphiboles was safe under controlled conditions. Citing the low biopersistence of chrysotile fibers, the Zimbabwe delegate claimed there was no statistically significant risk posed by chrysotile asbestos to human beings.

Kyrgyzstan: “Kyrgyzstan fully supports the Kiev conference; [it is] too early to list chrysotile. The controlled use of chrysotile ensures safe use.” Because there were limited data available on the hazards of using asbestos substitutes, it was the view of Kyrgyzstan that they could pose a greater danger than chrysotile.

Moldova: Supporting the listing of chrysotile, the Moldova delegate said: “Moldova doesn't produce asbestos-containing material any more and regulations have been approved to protect workers.”

European Environment and Health Ministerial Board (EEHMB): Having referenced the Parma Declaration on Environment and Health (2010) which included a commitment to “develop by 2015 a national programme for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases,” the EEHMB supported the listing of chrysotile.22

European Union: the European Union, which emphasized that listing chrysotile was not the same as banning it and that all criteria had been met for listing chrysotile under the RC, was in favour of including chrysotile in Annex III.

Venezuela: Supporting listing, Venezuela was of the opinion that the impasse regarding the listing of chrysotile was weakening the Convention and was affecting developing countries.

Uruguay: Uruguay said that listing chrysotile was morally the right thing to do; we need, the delegate said, to act preventatively. Listing was not the same as banning.

Switzerland: Switzerland supported inclusion.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua supported inclusion.

Oman: Oman supported inclusion.

Guinea-Bissau: Guinea-Bissau supported inclusion.

Lebanon: Lebanon supported the EU position on listing chrysotile; listing did not equal banning. All the criteria had been met for listing chrysotile.

Vietnam: Opposing listing, the Vietnam delegate said that chrysotile had been used in asbestos-cement roofing in Vietnam since 1963. It was useful for low income people. Vietnam recognized no scientific basis for listing chrysotile.

Mauritius: Asbestos is banned in Mauritius and Mauritius supported inclusion.

New Zealand: New Zealand supported the listing of chrysotile on the basis that chrysotile met all RC criteria for listing.

Libya: Libya supported listing.

Dominican Republic: Offering the view that developing countries had “no ability to deal with chrysotile waste,” the Dominican Republic supported listing.

Argentina: Argentina has banned asbestos and supported listing.

Mauritania: Stating that developing countries had porous borders and that anything that strengthened international regulation was welcome, Mauritania supported inclusion.

Malaysia: In supporting inclusion, Malaysia pointed out that the IARC had declared all types of asbestos carcinogenic, and expressed its concern over the death toll from asbestos-related diseases, citing 4,000 annual asbestos-related deaths in the UK.

Norway: Norway supported listing and urged other countries to do likewise. Listing chrysotile would, Norway said, mark a “great step forward.”

Mongolia: The Government of Mongolia “aims to reduce the use of chrysotile.” Mongolia supported listing.

Mozambique: Mozambique had, its delegate said, banned asbestos and supported inclusion.

Gabon: Gabon supported listing.

World Health Organization: Supporting listing, the WHO delegate said that the controlled use of asbestos was impossible and that affordable alternatives were available.

U.S: The U.S. supported listing.

Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF): As a member of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance, WECF made the last intervention during the May 7 plenary session debate on chrysotile. The WECF urged Convention Parties to list chrysotile.

May 21, 2013

_______

1 For background information on the Rotterdam Convention see: The Rotterdam Convention 2013
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-rotterdam-convention-2013-primer-apr-18.php

2 The daily reports written for May 7-10, can be accessed at:
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-rotterdam-convention-cop6-day-1.php
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-rotterdam-convention-cop6-day-2.php
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-rotterdam-convention-cop6-day-3.php
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-rotterdam-convention-cop6-day-4.php

3 ROCA is an international alliance of environmental, labor and health organizations working to promote the implementation of the Rotterdam Convention. Groups which are members of the alliance include: International POPs Elimination Network, Corporate Accountability Desk of The Other Media, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, International Labor Rights Forum, PAN Africa, PAN Asia and the Pacific, PAN Germany, PAN Latin America RAPAL, PAN North America, Rede Virtual-Cidadã Pelo Banimento do Amianto para a América Latina, RightonCanada, Thanal and Women in Europe for a Common Future.
http://rocalliance.blogspot.co.uk/p/members.html

4 The affiliations of these individuals are as follows: Sugio Furuya, Asian Ban Asbestos Network; Fernanda Giannasi, Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed; Dr. Barry Castleman, independent scientific expert; Kathleen Ruff, RightonCanada; Alessandro Pugno, AfeVA – Association of Asbestos Victims and Families from Casale Monferrato, Italy, Laurie Kazan-Allen, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, Britain.

5 Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Coverage on Tuesday, 7 May 2013.
http://www.iisd.ca/chemical/excopscops/2013/7may.html

6 http://caova.ch/?p=1333

7 For highlights of the May 7, 2013 plenary discussion on the listing of chrysotile see Appendix.

8 From our delegation, Alexandra Caterbow and Dr. Barry Castleman made interventions during the contact group meeting. Alexandra pointed out that denying developing countries the right to know the truth about the asbestos hazard was likely to create a climate in which the only viable position governments could take was to prohibit its use. Barry highlighted the existence of safer, affordable alternatives to asbestos-cement products.

9 Link to AFeVA letter (English) and Italian.

10 ROCA side event invitation.

11 Sugio Furuya's presentation.

12 Presentation by Fernanda Giannasi.

13 The listing of chrysotile was rejected at COP meetings in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

14 The trailer of this documentary can be watched at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Veui0r4xM9E
The book – Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial – written to accompany this documentary can be accessed at:
http://ibasecretariat.org/eternit-great-asbestos-trial-toc.htm

15 Asbestos in Kyrgyzstan leaflet and presentation by Dr. Kototenko.

16 For more information on the work of the NGO “BIOM” in the Kyrgyz Republic see: http://www.biom.kg/

17 Elina Doszhanova's presentation.

18 Kazan-Allen L. “Defending the Indefensible.” August 16, 2008.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka_defend_indefensible.php

19 Earth Negotiations Bulletin. May 9, 2013.
http://www.iisd.ca/vol15/enb15208e.html

20 Pruzin D. Joint Chemical Conference Disappoints Those Seeking Action on Asbestos, Paraquat. May 17, 2013. Bloomberg BNA, Daily Report for Executives.

21 The chronological record of the May 7, 2013 plenary session debate on chrysotile in this appendix was transcribed by the author; every effort has been made to ensure the statements made were correct but the discussion was fast-moving and many of the comments were translated. These factors may be responsible for minor errors. To read the official record of the proceedings in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin detailing the highlights of RC COP6 on May 7-10, 2013, see:
http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb15207e.pdf
http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb15208e.pdf
http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb15209e.pdf
http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb15210e.pdf

22 http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/176261/National-Programmes-For-Elimination-Of-Asbestos-related-Diseases-Review-And-Assessment.pdf

 

 

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