The Rotterdam Convention: Fighting for its Life
As its 10th anniversary1 approaches, the Rotterdam Convention is facing an uncertain future. This multilateral agreement, which took years of negotiations to bring into existence, had the highest of intentions. It was devised to protect human beings and the environment in developing countries from exposure to dangerous substances by implementing a global protocol to insure that importing countries were fully informed of potential hazards. Thereby armed, they would be able to give prior informed consent regarding their ability to use these substances safely.2
When the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list was first proposed in November 2003, it was blocked by asbestos stakeholders led by Canada.3 In September 2004, during a final meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the Convention, the listing of chrysotile was again contested. When it was raised a few days later at the first Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (COP1), no consensus was reached due to Canadian-led opposition.4 In October 2006 at COP3, the listing of chrysotile was the subject of a heated debate during which the Canadian delegation behaved in a most undiplomatic and, some might even say, boorish manner.5 As all COP decisions must be taken unanimously, the objections by six Parties, representing 5% of the Convention Members, at COP3 prevented the wishes of the 95% majority from being implemented.6 Far from resolving the thorny chrysotile issue, COP3 opted to defer any decision until COP4 meets in Rome in October 2008, despite the fact that all the procedural and legal requirements for including it on Annex III had been met.
In the run-up to COP4, a well-worn industry strategy has resurfaced. Asbestos stakeholders in India, Canada and Ukraine have commissioned new research on the effects of chrysotile use despite the global consensus that chrysotile causes a myriad of debilitating and fatal respiratory diseases and cancers.
At a press conference in New Delhi on February 5, 2008, Campaigner Madhumita Dutta exposed collusion of the Indian Government and the asbestos industry in a blatant attempt to prove that chrysotile asbestos does not constitute a risk to Indian workers or the public. Dutta cited comments by independent scientists who described the Indian research as: a waste of valuable resources, having serious methodological shortcomings, non-conventional data presentation, and interpretations, and being methodologically incomplete and (having) insufficient evidence with misinterpreted data.
The fact that industry stakeholders provided 24% of the funding for the project bought them unique access to every stage of its development. At the same time, input from trade unions, environmental NGOs and public health campaigners was barred. The final report will, Dutta said, be presented at COP4 to justify India's continued use of asbestos.7
On March 10, 2008, objections were voiced by major Indian trade unions to this study in a letter sent to the Ministry of Chemicals:
we have strong reasons to believe that this study is a travesty of what is considered credible science. The fact that it is sponsored, reviewed, and vetted by those who stand to gain or lose from its findings make it absolutely unethical. Besides, the secrecy surrounding its outcomes make it suspect in the public eye This study needs to be immediately scrapped Please remember that this study will seal the fate of millions of workers handling this substance and will have far reaching implications on national public health. The only way forward is to ban the production and use of all forms of asbestos in the country.
In Canada, a similar exercise has been underway for some time. Although every effort had been made to keep the research project secret,8 news leaked out in February 2008 when the Quebec Federation of Labor used its existence to prevent the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) from voting on a resolution to ban asbestos production and use in Canada. In light of public statements made by CLC President Ken Georgetti last Autumn and a direct appeal to the CLC by the All India Trade Union Congress asking for help in changing Ottawa's pro-asbestos stance, the CLC's lack of action was disappointing.
On February 22, 2008, Andrew Schneider reported that: the Canadian health agency has quietly begun a study on the dangers of the asbestos type (chrysotile) 9 In an article headlined Health Canada Assessing Risk of Chrysotile Asbestos, Canadian journalist Martin Mittelstaedt provided more information:
In an emailed statement, Health Canada said it was undertaking the research to 'help further Canada's knowledge of chrysotile asbestos fibres in relation to human health,' and to update the World Health Organization's last published assessment on the subject from 1998.
Only after repeated efforts by a CBC journalist did Health Canada disclose any information about its study. It was ascertained that the scientific panel convened by Health Canada included two of the chrysotile industry's favourite scientists: David Bernstein and Graham Gibbs, who on numerous occasions have given evidence favorable to the controlled use position. Health Canada refused to disclose when the report will be made public, stating: No time frame has been determined yet. The Government's attempt to hide the real objective of this exercise was a dismal failure. Health Canada refused to be interviewed but in a written statement, the truth was made blindingly clear:
Health Canada is updating its knowledge in this area. Information and recommendations provided by the panel will be used to inform Health Canada's decision making with respect to chrysotile asbestos. Science has shown that chrysotile asbestos is safe when used under controlled conditions. Canada regulates this safe use domestically and promotes it to its trading partners internationally.
There can be no doubt that Health Canada commissioned this research to obtain new research to justify its old position; should selected panel members not comply with the remit there are always others who will.
The conclusions of a study distributed in 2008 entitled: It (sic) is possible to use chrysotile asbestos safely? Ukrainian Perspective come as no surprise. The four Ukrainian co-authors explain the purpose of the research as follows:
to conduct integrated hygienic evaluation of working conditions in major asbestos-cement plants in Ukraine and to assess their health effects (in the first place, the health effects of chrysotile fibre dust) in workers.
Among familiar arguments included in this 32-page booklet is the erroneous assertion that asbestos-free alternatives are more hazardous than chrysotile or, as they put it: Asbestos synthetic substitutes actively promoted by certain biased circles are precisely carcinogenic hazardous substances. Conclusions of this study include:
The Chemical Review Committee (CRC) of the Rotterdam Convention met in Geneva from March 10-13, 2008. From what can be learned, neither the Indian nor the Canadian research projects were circulated; delegates from Ukraine, however, were distributing copies of their study. While no action was taken by the CRC to derail COP4's discussion on the PIC-listing of chrysotile in October, is it likely that the outcome in 2008 will be any different from that in 2003, 2004 or 2006?
Well, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that the Convention still requires unanimity for any decisions to be progressed and the pro-asbestos governments remain as committed as ever. The good news is that a new player has emerged. This month, a campaign, backed by groups representing civil society from every continent, was launched to Save the Rotterdam Convention! On March 11, 2008, the groups issued a Media Release highlighting the threat posed by the chrysotile veto:
Industry interference and political sabotage by a handful of countries, led by Canada, are strangling the Rotterdam Convention Because of this interference, no new listing of a hazardous product under the Convention has been possible for the past four years and the groups are concerned that progress at meetings planned for this year will likewise be blocked ...
Canada argued (in 2006) that unless every single country agrees, no action should be taken to implement the Convention (procedures). 'This is a death sentence for the Convention,' said Joan Kuyek of Mining Watch Canada.
COP4 is the last chance for the Rotterdam Convention. Unless common sense prevails and/or a more flexible decision-making process is adopted, the only task left for the Rotterdam Secretariat will be to dig a deep hole in which to bury this well-meaning but toothless agreement. Should the Convention collapse, toxic traders will, once more, enjoy the unfettered freedom to maim and kill. Every effort must be made to find a solution to the current impasse so that developing countries do not become dumping grounds for discredited chemicals and hazardous substances.
March 19, 2008
3 In 2003, 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.
4 A chronological record of the 2004 COP1 chrysotile debate shows opposition to chrysotile PIC listing from convention members: Canada, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan; Russia, India, China, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Zimbabwe, which were not members but attended as observers, also opposed the listing.
6 See: Chronological Record of Chrysotile Debate at the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (COP3) on October 10, 2006 in Geneva, Switzerland.
8 Information received suggests that panel members met on November 13 and 14, 2007 and that a preliminary report should be available by the beginning of March 2008. The panel consists of: Trevor Ogden (Chair), Leslie Stayner, Graham Gibbs, Kenny Crump, David Bernstein, Bice Fubini and Nick de Klerk.