UN Convention Defiled
The final spadeful of dirt was dug for the grave of the Rotterdam Convention (RC) on May 12, 2023.1 After a tumultuous week of negotiations, tantrums and grandstanding, rapacious vested interests led by Russian asbestos stakeholders succeeded not only in blocking UN progress on chrysotile (white) asbestos but also in annihilating efforts to reform a treaty which is no longer fit for purpose.2
At a plenary session of the RC (eleventh Conference of the Parties [COP 11]) on May 9, 2023, delegates representing Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan opposed adding chrysotile (white) asbestos to Annex III of the Convention, a measure which would have subjected the global chrysotile trade to prior-informed-consent procedures.3 Because of the Conventions protocols, the votes of these countries were sufficient to frustrate the wishes of the other 159 Parties to the Convention who supported the Secretariats proposal to list chrysotile.
Just a few days later, on May 12, the same objector-nations joined 15 others to kill off reforms proposed by 14 co-sponsors originally led by Switzerland, Mali and Australia.4 Although the US is not a Party to the RC, its representative Karissa Kovner was highly vocal in opposing the amendment concerning the Conventions listing process; Kovner warned that more should be done to secure the consensus approach and cautioned against setting a troubling precedent.
Karissa Kovner, representing the US, an Observer to the Convention. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin described what transpired at the Geneva International Conference Centre on the afternoon of May 12, 2023 as follows:
Then, the proposal for a new Annex to the Convention was introduced and the seams started to strain. The proposed new Annex would list chemicals that countries could not reach consensus to list in Annex III of the treaty. Voting would be permitted to list in the new Annex, among those who are party to it. It's proponents said it was a way to provide information to all countries, for a wide range of chemicals.
Nigeria called for a vote on the proposal. The call divided the room, with many speaking in favor and against such a move. A three-fourths majority would be required to amend the Convention. Several countries raised points of order, and the Russian Federation twice appealed the proposal to vote on the amendment. These appeals each needed to be voted on, by a secret ballot as requested. In the carefully-managed process, no photos could be taken and the Bureau members had to oversee the counting. Neither appeal received support, but the process took several hours.
Parties were then asked to vote on the proposal; again, a secret ballot was requested. The proposal to amend the Convention and add a new Annex failed by a slim margin. Of the 132 parties present and voting, 92 supported the proposal, representing 70%. While some were pleased that the spirit of consensus prevailed, others were frustrated that a minority of parties could block the will of the majority. Many who spoke lamented how the process had unfolded, for various reasons.5
Here are some of the faces of the people in the conference hall last week who carried out orders betraying global populations and condemning millions of people to premature deaths as a result of avoidable exposures to hazardous chemicals and pesticides:
Tamin Alothimin, Saudia Arabia. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Zhou Zhiquang, China. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Tatiana Kuznetsova, Russia. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Pauline Nhunzvi, Zimbabwe. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Hussein Rahdar, Iran. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Satyendra Kumar, India. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Zaigham Abbas, Pakistan. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Throughout last week there were squabbles over minor and major issues at COP 11, including the number and identities of the co-chairs of the RC Enhancing Effectiveness Contact Group, the remit of the Contact Group, procedural issues in the work of the Contact Group and multiple points of order, to name just a few. The polarized views of opposing camps and rigid adhesion to government-dictated positions seriously affected the viability of proceedings. The blatant disregard of core Convention objectives by the 21 blocking delegations was proof, if more was needed, that the goodwill and traditional atmosphere of cordiality and respect which might have once characterized RC deliberations had long since evaporated.6
A plea for a return to respectful dialogue was made during a plenary session by a long-term leader in the process who wondered what had happened to the unwritten behaviors and attitudes delegates typically had at these meetings and how such a level of polarization has seeped into our discussions. Frustrated with the lack of progress in one contact group accusations of unproductive behavior were made.7 Successful stonewalling and procedural delays caused by timewasting motions meant that the final vote on the Annex VIII Amendment ran out of time with many of the delegates already gone by the time the final vote was taken.
The theme of the 2023 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention was: accelerating action: targets for the sound management of chemicals and waste. Most of the 2,000 participants who came to Geneva for COP11 did so with good intentions; a minority did not. Once again, the hopes of delegates to improve the global management of chemicals were dashed. After almost 20 years of existence and more than ten years of discussions to enhance the effectiveness of the RC, it could be time to consider whether there is any purpose in continuing life support for a moribund Convention when there is so little hope for recovery.
May 15, 2023
1 The full name of the UN multilateral agreement referenced above is The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.
2 Kazan-Allen, L. Light at the End of the Tunnel? February 21, 2023.
Kazan-Allen, L. Rotterdam Convention Primer. May 9, 2023.
3 During the plenary debate, Mauritius, Canada, Japan, Iran, Norway, Colombia, El Salvador, Moldova, the EU, Ukraine, Serbia, New Zealand, Mexico, Australia, the Republic of Korea. Argentina, Peru, the Maldives, Bolivia, Uruguay, Cameroon, Nigeria, Switzerland, Vanuatu, Samoa, Eswatini, Panama and the UK spoke out in support of listing chrysotile.
Daily report for 9 May 2023. Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions. May 9, 2023.
4 Burkina Faso, Colombia, Costa Rica, Georgia, Ghana, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Republic of Maldives, South Africa, Togo and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland subsequently joined as co-sponsors of the proposal, while Mali withdrew its sponsorship thereof.
Amendment of the Rotterdam Convention (Article 21). Accessed May 13, 2023.
UN experts urge Parties to Rotterdam Convention to adopt amendment listing hazardous chemicals. March 27, 2023.
5 Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Highlights and images for May 12, 2023.
Australian Trade Unions Congress. We have a Right to Know! The Rotterdam Convention must be modernised to protect human health and the environment. May 9, 2023.
6 Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Daily report for 10 May 2023.