Rotterdam Convention: Chrysotile Update!
On September 18, 2004, a United Nations Committee will meet in Switzerland to consider adding chrysotile (white asbestos) to a list of hazardous chemicals1 subject to international trade restrictions.2 The objective of the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure of the Rotterdam Convention is to provide importing countries with documentation on designated chemicals so that national governments can make informed decisions on whether these materials can be used safely. When the inclusion of chrysotile on the PIC list was first proposed (November 2003), it was blocked by asbestos stakeholders led by Canada.3
Vetoing this recommendation struck at the very heart of the Rotterdam Convention. Chrysotile unequivocally met the Convention's requirements, and those governments opposing its listing blatantly disregarded the treaty obligations,4 alleged Clifton Curtis, the Director of WWF's Global Toxics Programme who was in no doubt that Canada's objection was embarrassingly self-interested.5 Rejecting widespread criticism of Canada's role in this debacle, Bernard Made, co-head of Canada's delegation at the negotiations and Chief of the Chemicals Control Division of Environment Canada, pleaded for more time, saying: We haven't taken a position. At this point we are not for or against. We haven't completed our consultations. While the consultations may not have been completed, they had certainly been on-going for a considerable time. Documentation obtained under the Canadian Access to Information Act reveal that Bernard Made was just one of many civil servants exchanging emails and phone calls about the PIC procedure during 2002-2003.
Canada's use of delaying tactics is part of its long-term strategy to protect asbestos sales. After Made's lame excuses last year, the Government of Canada announced a public consultation on the listing of chrysotile. Consultation Document (CD): Addition of Chrysotile Asbestos to the PIC Procedure of the Rotterdam Convention released on February 26, 2004 is a classic example of the use of political flimflam to misdirect public attention. Whereas a statement on page one purports that this exercise is needed for the Government to develop a position on this issue and to take into account the potential impacts of the inclusion or non-inclusion of chrysotile under the PIC procedure,6 by the time you get to the end of the document, it becomes clear that the narrow purview of these consultations makes the exercise a futile expenditure of taxpayers' money.
On March 23, 2004 the release of the agenda for the meeting on April 1 (yes April 1!) sparked objections from public health campaigners, trade unionists and asbestos victims' groups. The fact that the afternoon meeting provided a scant 2.5 hours for presentations and discussion is a clear indication that the entrenched federal policy of support for the industry at the expense of the victims is in little danger. Upon receipt of the agenda, Joan Kuyek of Mining Watch Canada informed Environment Canada:
I seriously object to the chosen format for the consultation. It is very clear that there are serious differences of opinion about PIC and chrysotile, which are based, not on misunderstandings but on disagreement. Without the opportunity to present research and clearly formulated analysis to the consultation, this analysis will be diluted and trivialized.
Cathy Walker, Director of Health and Safety for the Canadian Autoworkers Union, agreed:
Indeed it is an appalling agenda. The powers that be in Ottawa obviously aren't interested in seeing a strong opposition to asbestos and are going through the motions, rather than engaging in any genuine discussion.
Although no federal document has been published detailing the results of the sham consultation, on June 6, 2004, Minister Denis Coderre travelled to Thetford Mines to tell a press conference that the Liberal Government was committed not to include chrysotile in the PIC Procedure of the Rotterdam Convention. The fact that in the run-up to the general election the announcement was made in Quebec's asbestos heartland speaks volumes about the trade-off made between Ottawa's vote-hungry politicians and Canada's profit-hungry asbestos producers.
On August 7, 2004, the Chrysotile Institute, formerly known as the Asbestos Institute, published its newsletter which consisted of a rehashing of discredited pro-chrysotile arguments. Under the headline: Rotterdam Convention: All countries have the right to vote in September 2004, they stated:
It is imperative that all the governments of the countries concerned participate in this meeting and vote against the inclusion of chrysotile to this procedure of the Convention. The Committee's decision will be made by consensus.
There is no doubt that this wordy document is a call-to-arms to global asbestos producers such as China, Russia and Zimbabwe which supported the 2003 veto.
Canada has reaped the windfall from billions of dollars of asbestos sales; entrenched financial and political interests will not voluntarily release their grasp on this treasure trove no matter how many epidemiological studies are done or victims come forward. Over the last year, however, industry's control of the national asbestos agenda has begun slipping. Increasing media awareness of the hazardous nature of asbestos exposure along with the formation of campaigning groups, Ban Asbestos Canada (BAC) and the Association of Quebec Asbestos Victims (AVAQ), are mobilizing anti-asbestos support in Canada. AVAQ has embarked upon a high-profile campaign to support chrysotile inclusion on the PIC list. In letters sent to Canadian Ministers and federal politicians they have called on the Canadian Government:
to ban the export of asbestos; withdraw its financial and political support from the Asbestos Institute; work with the communities involved to ensure a just transition for asbestos workers and lobby for a world wide ban on the use of asbestos and as an immediate measure: support the inclusion of chrysotile on the PIC list.
1 DDT, Lindane and mercury compounds are included on this list.
2 This will be the eleventh session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for an Internationally Binding Instrument for the Application of Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedures for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.
3 The countries which backed the Canadian opposition to the listing of chrysotile as a dangerous substance were: Russia, India, Ukraine, China, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, South Africa and Colombia; the countries in favor of the inclusion of chrysotile on the PIC list were: the 15 European Union Member States, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Gambia, Congo, Egypt and Morocco.
4 Press Release: WWF slams Canada and Russia for blocking listing of asbestos as a dangerous substance. November 18, 2003. Website: www.panda.org [WWF is a conservation organization.]
5 Canada is the world's second biggest chrysotile exporter.
6 Consultation Document: Addition of Chrysotile Asbestos to the PIC Procedure of the Rotterdam Convention. Website: http:www.ec.gc.ca/nopp/docs/consult/Rotterdam/ca/en/index.cfm
September 5, 2004