Twenty-first Century Diplomacy: Gherkins for Asbestos
Did you ever wonder why sales of asbestos, a substance known to be carcinogenic, have remained at around two million tonnes a year throughout the 21st century? Even with mountains of evidence detailing the deadly repercussions of asbestos exposures and cemeteries of victims as visible proof of the dangers, some governments refuse to take action to protect their citizens. When even an asbestos town actually named Asbestos in Quebecs former asbestos heartland is considering a name change,1 the failure of decision makers, national governments and regulatory agencies to end asbestos use seems incomprehensible.
There has been much speculation about the reasons why Thailand and Vietnam, countries which were close to banning asbestos some years ago, have failed to do so. According to feedback from grassroots observers, the fight-back from asbestos vested interests in these countries has been brutal and intense with their efforts, at times, being supported by public relations firms and/or international trade associations such as the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), the mission of which is to defend chrysotile (white) asbestos.2 The asbestos propaganda campaign has been targeted not only at Asian markets but at the highest levels of international relations. According to a December 2016 interview with the ICAs President Jean-Marc Leblond, the ICA initiated judicial proceedings in order to be heard in Geneva, by WHO officials. No doubt the ICA planned to convince the WHO that its support for an end to asbestos use was misguided.
The ICA and other commercial stakeholders have used diverse strategies to create political and economic conditions in which asbestos sales would not only be tolerated but could also flourish. In Thailand, rumors that a trade deal with Canada had scuppered ban asbestos efforts were never substantiated. Now a document has surfaced which shows how diplomacy is used to restrict a countrys rights to safeguard its citizens. The 259-page December 2016 document with the catchy title: Joint Feasibility Study Report [the Report] on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Eurasian Economic Union [EAEU] and its Member States, of the one Part, and the Republic of India, of the other Part (see: PDF version of the Report) is being circulated this month (February 2017) to selected stakeholders in India; it is of relevance to note, however, that ban asbestos activists in India did not receive this document from government sources.
The bilateral treaty, which is now being actively negotiated, proposes the establishment of free trade arrangements between India and members of the Eurasian Economic Union including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, all of whom with the exception of Armenia for whom no asbestos trade data could be accessed produce or use asbestos.3 According to the Report, amongst the most important potential benefits for Russia and Kazakhstan of the full tariff liberalization would be the opportunity for increased sales of asbestos. In other words, in return for allowing two of the worlds asbestos giants unfettered and unrestricted access to the largest national asbestos market, which in 2014 consumed ~400,000 tonnes of asbestos imports, India would be permitted to supply without any duty whatsoever products such as tea, cucumbers, gherkins, grapes and concentrates of coffee to Kazakhstan and Russia. One wonders what Indias Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave would make of this deal; in 2016, he publicly committed his Ministry to ending asbestos use on the grounds of public health.4 It is no surprise to see the lack of officials from Indias Ministry of Health or Environment Ministry amongst the delegation which negotiated this outrageous deal. Of the four Indian negotiators listed, two represented the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and two the diplomatic service.
The health effects of this deal, should it go ahead, could be catastrophic for workers in India, a country where asbestos is regarded as just another raw material and toxic exposures are daily occurrences. The removal of duty on asbestos imports from Russia and Kazakhstan will make asbestos products cheaper and therefore more attractive to poorer customers. This will further exacerbate Indias asbestos epidemic with even higher levels of contamination of the infrastructure and even more people exposed at work and environmentally. No doubt asbestos profiteers in India and abroad will attempt to progress these negotiations with every weapon in their armoury. One can only hope that the 1.2 billion citizens in the worlds largest democracy will refuse to become the dumping ground for a material so dangerous that it has been banned in scores of countries and been denounced by all major international agencies tasked with protecting public and occupational health.5
February 19, 2017
1 Peritz I. Asbestos, Que., is a town left pondering its name in wake of planned ban. December 16, 2016.
2 The Chrysotile Crusader. December 16, 2016.
3 In 2014, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectively consumed 478,000 tonnes (t), 6,210t, 39,500t and 5,630t; Russia and Kazakhstan produced 1,100,000t and 213,000t accounting for 65% of all global asbestos production.
4 Mohan V. Will look for alternatives to carcinogenic asbestos: Environment Minister. August 15, 2016.
5 Asbestos Policies of International Agencies.