Rotterdam Treaty Killed by Chrysotile Asbestos!
An international treaty designed to protect developing nations from toxic trade has become the latest casualty of the global asbestos industry. Failure to list chrysotile asbestos under a global right-to-know scheme has left the Rotterdam Convention in tatters. Unless urgent action is taken to enable decisions to be made by majority rule, this much-needed United Nations multilateral environmental initiative will be stone dead within four years.
From October 9-13, 2006, over 500 participants from 140 governments, UN agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations attended the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention (COP-3) in Geneva, Switzerland.1 The chrysotile impasse was referred to by many speakers and delegations throughout the week-long proceedings; recognizing the difficulty of resolving this issue, delegates began to refer to chrysotle as the insoluble chemical.2
On Monday (Oct. 9), Conference President Yue Ruisheng (China) stressed the importance of action on chrysotile and reminded delegates that the listing of a substance on Annex III was not a ban on global sales but a provision to enable countries to make informed decisions on chemical purchases. This was the third time that an attempt to mandate an information exchange on chrysotile sales had been proposed; as on previous occasions, Canada led a cabal of vested interests which, spurred by economic and political motives, was determined to override the views of 95% of the Parties to the Convention.3 The behaviour of the Canadian delegation in Geneva was appalling. For bureaucrats schooled in the esoteric art of negotiation, there are ways of making a point without being offensive. Dispensing with all thoughts of subtlety and conciliation, the Canadian spokesman was boorish as well as rude in his attempt to stonewall debate and veto the categorization of chrysotile as a hazardous chemical.
At the beginning of Tuesday's (Oct. 10) discussion on adding chrysotile asbestos to the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list of hazardous substances, President Yue reminded delegates of the relatively long period of consideration of chrysotile by the Convention and the importance the chrysotile issue has for the viability of the Convention. President Yue asked delegates whether legal and procedural requirements had been met for including chrysotile on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list. Posing four questions on the Secretariat's compliance with the Convention, President Yue requested that delegates consider these questions before commenting on wider issues arising from the PIC listing of chrysotile.
Canada, the first delegation to comment, aggressively disregarded the Chair's discussion framework baldly stating:
The Conference of Parties is a policy body comprising governments. Regarding agenda item 5e chrysotile at this time Canada does not support the listing of chrysotile asbestos.
Although the Chair attempted to return to a technical discussion about due process, asbestos producing and consuming countries followed Canada's lead citing spurious and discredited reasons for their opposition to PIC listing.4
As PIC listing can only be achieved by consensus, the entrenched positions taken by a mere five Parties threw the Convention into total disarray. To resolve this impasse, the Chair suggested that a Friends of the Chair (FOTC) Group, chaired by Argentinean Andrea Repetti, be constituted to see whether compromise was possible. On Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 10) rumors were circulating that a compromise which had been brokered would be announced the next day (Oct. 11); no announcement was made. By October 12, no news was forthcoming and speculation was rife. As they grew frustrated waiting for news, delegates were holding Canada et al responsible for the potential collapse of the Rotterdam Convention: As some delegates put it, the Convention finds itself on a 'hot tin roof' and its credibility being questioned.
On Thursday afternoon (Oct. 12) during the Ministerial Segment of the Convention, Alexander Nies, from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation & Nuclear Safety (Germany), warned that failure to list chrysotile would, ultimately, damage the Convention's implementation; if chrysotile is not listed, he pointed out, no new chemicals would be added to the PIC list between 2004 and 2008, when the Parties next meet. A spokesperson for the Swiss Government emphasized the bad precedent set by the rejection of chrysotile for PIC-listing while the EU lamented the implications that the lack of consensus on chrysotile would have on the listing of numerous hazardous chemicals now on the PIC waiting list. Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, World Health Organization told delegates:
In order to protect the health of their people, countries must have information and tools to make decisions on which chemicals and pesticides can be used safely in local conditions, and if they are to be used, how they may be used safely
Chrysotile asbestos is a human carcinogen. No threshold has been identified for the carcinogenic risks of chrysotile. At least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases. The report of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer and chrysotile asbestos substitutes provides the information that safer substitutes exist, including for the predominant use of chrysotile, that is asbestos cement products in developing countries. This use of asbestos cement is of particular concern because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure, and in-place materials deteriorate and pose a risk to others.5
During the closing plenary session on Friday (Oct. 13), COP-3 adopted a decision, based on the FOTC consultation, to defer the decision on chrysotile despite the fact that all the procedural and legal requirements for including it on Annex III had been met. The issue will not be revisited until 2008, when COP-4 meets in Rome.
The overwhelming reaction of members of the Rotterdam Convention Secretariat, national delegates and public health campaigners was sadness at the wasted opportunity to tackle an issue of such global import. Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Programme, which together with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provides the Convention's Secretariat, said:
The lack of a decision at this time to list chrysotile asbestos raises concerns for many developing countries that need to protect their citizens from the well-known risks of this hazardous substance. While discussions continue over the next twp years, exporters should feel a special responsibility to help importers manage chrysotile safely.6
Agreeing with his colleague's statement, Alexander Muller of the FAO added:
With many more actively traded chemicals likely to be considered for inclusion in the future, it is important now to think through the precedent that we may be setting for the Convention.
Trade unionists and NGOs were angry at the lack of progress with Anita Normark, General Secretary of global building workers' union BWI, expressing her disgust at the dictatorial stance adopted by Canada and saying:
Asbestos kills one person every five minutes, more than any other industrial toxin. If it can't be listed under the Rotterdam Treaty, then every peddler of hazardous substances will know how simple it is to protect their deadly industrial favourite. The whole process is discredited.
Carl Smith, from a U.S. NGO, had witnessed the Geneva proceedings first-hand and wearily remarked:
Governments of the world have spent decades and countless millions cleaning up after toxic industries. It is baffling that they would allow these same industries to dictate that information which could protect human health and the environment should be withheld.
Canadians were shamed by their Government's self-serving behaviour with Dr. Larry Stoffman, the Vancouver-based Chair of a cancer-prevention body, saying:
I think it's morally reprehensible. I think it's a complete contradiction of what Canada purports to stand for.7
Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, and editor of the briefing: Chrysotile Asbestos: Hazardous to Humans, Deadly to the Rotterdam Convention which was distributed to hundreds of COP-3 delegates, described the outcome of the Geneva meeting as tragic:
A handful of unscrupulous governments have done the bidding of the global asbestos industry and defended the continuing, unfettered sale of a prolific workplace and environmental killer. At least 200,000 workers will be killed by asbestos diseases before the proposal to list asbestos can be tabled again.
1 The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral environmental agreement designed by a United Nations agency to protect vulnerable populations by ensuring that hazardous chemicals which are added to the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list can only be exported with full disclosure and documentation. Although five types of asbestos were PIC listed in 2004, action on chrysotile asbestos was blocked, at that time, by asbestos stakeholders including Canada, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and India. At the October 2006 meeting, determined efforts by Canada et al frustrated efforts by the Treaty Secretariat to implement the Convention procedures and list chrysotile. See: http://www.pic.int/ and http://www.iisd.ca/chemical/pic/cop3/
3 Of the 110 Parties to the Convention on September 15, 2006, only 6 opposed the inclusion of chrysotile: Canada, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Peru, India and Ukraine; the Russian Federation, which vociferously opposed chrysotile inclusion, is not a Party to the Convention.
6 No Consensus on Chrysotile Asbestos. http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=486&ArticleID=5385&1=en
7 Martin Mittelstaedt. Ottawa Helps Defeat Asbestos Limit. The Globe and Mail. October 14, 2006.
January 8, 2007