Rotterdam Convention Conference of the Parties (COP6): Day 1
Today the asbestos tribes gathered in the plenary room at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. The representatives of the asbestos industry were out en masse; some were included in official government delegations, others present as observers. Representing civil society was a coalition of groups and interests gathered under the umbrella of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance (ROCA). ROCA delegates came from all parts of the world and had a wide range of languages and experience of high-level international gatherings. Some were veterans, some were new to the arcane language and procedural ramifications of a multilateral treaty. All of them were determined to see chrysotile asbestos listed on Annex III of the Convention.
The day began with a ROCA briefing and various regional group meetings. At 10 a.m. the first plenary session started. It soon became clear that the morning would evaporate with time spent on various issues which did not include chrysotile. When we broke for lunch at 1 p.m. we were hopeful that upon the resumption of the session at 3 o'clock, the subject on the agenda would be chrysotile.
At 1:15 in Place des Nations, a demonstration was mounted by groups representing thousands of asbestos victims all over the world. Two coachloads of French activists took part, bringing with them their banners, the French flag, masks and bags of goodwill. From Italy representatives came from Casale Monferrato and Turin; they included victims, activists and trade unionists. Other groups represented included the UK Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups, the German Association of Asbestos Victims, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed, and Ban Asbestos Japan. There were speeches and denunciations. Calls were made for the UN to take decisive action on chrysotile. Too many deaths, not enough action was a common refrain.
When we resumed the proceedings in the plenary session at 3:15 we did so with baited breath. By 3:45 the wait was over. It some became all too clear that an impasse remained regarding the listing of chrysotile. Of the 143 parties which were registered as attending the conference, over the next 90 minutes 7 spoke out against listing. It was, of course, the usual suspects: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and India.
The frustration levels in the room were rising, as one after the other of them mouthed the standard pro-chrysotile propaganda: there is insufficient scientific evidence, chrysotile can be used safely, the use of unproven asbestos substitutes remains problematic.
Time was evaporating and the ROCA spokeswoman listed to speak had yet to be called. As the minutes ticked away we felt the possibility of our making an intervention lessen. Finally, the President gave us the floor. On behalf of ROCA, Laurie Kazan-Allen addressed the plenary session: "The world is watching what is being done in this chamber," she said. "To safeguard human health and preserve the Rotterdam Convention, we urge every Party to support the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III."
With those words echoing in the room, the session was brought to a close. This, the first day, was just the beginning. Discussions on chrysotile will continue throughout the week.
May 7, 2013