By Laurie Kazan-Allen*
In a few weeks, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations’ Rotterdam Convention (RC) on the Prior Informed Consent Procedures for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade will meet for the eighth time (COP8). Pivotal to the success of the meeting and, indeed, to the long-term viability of this multinational Convention, will be the decision taken regarding the inclusion of chrysotile (white) asbestos on a list of substances subject to mandatory trade regulations.
At several previous COPs, asbestos stakeholder countries, led initially by Canada and more latterly by Russia, orchestrated vetoes which thwarted the majority desire to take action on chrysotile. This was possible because of procedures which stipulate that decisions to add hazardous substances to Annex III must be made by consensus. As a consequence, the listing of any substance can be prevented by the objection of just one of the 157 countries which are Parties to the Convention.
After various COP asbestos debacles, scores of national representatives expressed discontent, anger and frustration at the behaviour of asbestos stakeholding countries.2 In 2015, Benin, Liberia, Nigeria, Niger, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Kenya and Equatorial Guinea – speaking as the “African Group” – reiterated support for the inclusion of chrysotile on Annex III and highlighted the need of developing countries for information on toxic products. Two years earlier at COP6, a Kenyan delegate told the plenary session that:
“The African Group, except Zimbabwe, supports listing… The African Group specially supports the listing of chrysotile Asbestos as recommended by the CRC [Chemical Review Committee] because of the risk evaluation done on this material. It is confirmed that it has effects on human health one of it being that it is carcinogenic according to the notification submitted by Chile, Australia and the European Union and therefore strongly recommends its listing in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. This is so that parties can make informed decisions on the future shipments of this material.”
At COP5 (2011) frustration at the asbestos impasse led to a Declaration on Chrysotile Asbestos which was signed by 65 countries including the African Group (Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Cote dIvoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Togo and Zambia). This document expressed deep concern about the failure to list chrysotile, noting that progress on this issue had “been prevented by a small number of Parties for three consecutive Conferences of the Parties.” The signatories of this document called upon the Convention to “hold paramount the protection of human health and the environment … move forward to list chrysotile asbestos in Annex III and improve the effectiveness of the Convention in listing chemicals in the future…”
Considering the position taken by the African Group on the chrysotile controversy, it was noteworthy that a regional consultation took place in Pretoria, South Africa on September 22 and 23, 2016 “to forge a common understanding of the Rotterdam Convention and to recommend options for enhancing its decision-making processes on the listing of chemicals in Annex III; proposals for amending the Rotterdam Convention were developed by a number of African countries.” Following those discussions, on October 11, 2016 the Rotterdam Convention Secretariat received two proposals, one to amend Article 16 on technical assistance and the other to amend Article 22 on the adoption and amendment of annexes.
The recommendations were contained in a procedural amendment submitted in 2016 to the RC Secretariat to allow the inclusion of a substance on Annex III to be implemented by the approval of a 75% majority. According to a document on the RC website, the African Group urged the Parties to the Convention:
“…to make every effort to reach agreement on any proposed amendment to the Convention by consensus. If all efforts at consensus have been exhausted, and no agreement reached, the amendment as a last resort is to be adopted by a three-fourths majority vote of the Parties present and voting at the meeting.”
The specific language of the revisions needed to paragraphs 4 and 5 of Article 22 of the Convention to effect the change from consensus to majority decisions was spelled out in Annex II of the document circulated to RC Parties on November 25, 2016. The draft proposal eliminated the requirement for consensus for additions to Annex III of the Convention by deleting all of Sub-article 5 of Article 22.
South Africa, one of the Convention Parties that in 2011 resolved “to move forward to list chrysotile asbestos in Annex III and improve the effectiveness of the Convention in listing chemicals in the future,” does not support the 2016 amendment. According to a blog which appeared this month (March 2017), South Africa “refusing to back a move by Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia to unblock a logjam at the Rotterdam Convention which is preventing this UN agency from including white asbestos on a list of toxins subject to requirements ensuring prior informed consent of importing countries.”
Having tried every possible method to achieve consensus on the listing of chrysotile, including multiple Rotterdam Convention working parties, intersessional negotiations and regional discussions, it is blaringly obvious that dramatic action is needed if the Convention is to fulfil its remit to protect global populations from exposure to deadly imports.7 At previous COPs, there has been little appetite for tinkering with the structure or provisions of a much-valued Convention that was, according Vice President Carl Smith of the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (2006):
“The culmination of nearly two decades of dialogue between governments, intergovernmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Its fundamental objective is to facilitate information exchange regarding chemicals that have been strictly regulated or banned by at least two States, enabling governments in developed and developing countries alike to make informed decisions regarding safe use and trade.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations over fifty years ago speaks of the “inherent dignity” of human beings, the “worth of the human person,” the promotion of “social progress and better standards of life,” as well as the “right to life, liberty and security of person… and favourable conditions of work.”
None of these values or goals can exist in a country where asbestos use continues. Listing chrysotile on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention would allow countries to make informed decisions regarding their capacity to protect citizens from deadly exposures. Surely, it is each sovereign country’s right to make such a choice. The asbestos lobbyists and the delegations which support them at the RC are seeking to prioritize their financial interests over the health and safety of global populations; it is unlikely they will change their position on chrysotile any time soon. In light of their intransigence, the latest proposal by the African Group may be the last hope for the Convention’s survival.
Time will tell.
*Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS)