BLOG: Fresh from her attendance at the fourth intersessional meeting of SAICM, Shweta Dabholkar considers what the meeting has actually achieved and why countries and other stakeholders need to act more responsibly.
This year, I attended my first United Nations (UN) conference – the fourth planning meeting to consider the future of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).
The ‘meeting’ was in fact two separate events that took place in Bucharest from 29 August to 2 September 2022 and Nairobi from 27 February to 3 March 2023.
I had been excited at the prospect of contributing to policymaking, aimed at minimising harm from hazardous chemicals. However, I found that inequalities, underrepresentation and self-interests threaten to undermine this important ambition.
A unique conference
SAICM is a policy framework that was agreed in 2006, at the first International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM1).
It sets out an ambitious target of achieving “sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that by the year 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health”.
However, this goal was not achieved by 2020. Hence, the purpose of the conference I attended was to develop a new BEYOND 2020 strategy to achieve the same unmet objective.
The most distinct feature of the SAICM conference is its inclusive nature. All stakeholders have an equal say in all matters, be it countries, civil society organizations or the private sector.
Therefore, SAICM is unique and is unlike most other UN conferences where non-governmental stakeholders only observe and are not given the floor to express their opinions.
Consensus through negotiation
The task of this five-day conference was to complete the BEYOND 2020 document through the consensus of all stakeholders and not by majority votes.
Every stakeholder, country, or civil society organization had their own agenda and came well prepared. Getting these different stakeholders, with often opposing views, to mutually agree on any topic was a therefore very difficult task.
There were three visible groups for every issue: supporters, opposers and negotiators. Interestingly, the group of negotiators – a subset of the first two groups – grew with every passing day.
The only way to consensus is through negotiation. Therefore, only when everyone becomes a negotiator can the task approach its desired outcome.
I went in as an academic representative and came out as a negotiator.
Inequalities and underrepresentation
The BEYOND 2020 document was divided into topics for thematic group discussions, such as ‘finance’, ‘targets and objectives’, and ‘issues of concern’. The aim was to save time and complete the document, although this was not achieved.
The discussion groups’ chair and co-chair were often a combination of representatives from high-income countries and low and middle-income countries. Despite this, low and middle-income countries still found themselves underrepresented across the wider conference.
Most high-income countries had sent more than two representatives to the conference. In contrast, most low and middle-income countries had been able to send just one representative.
The economic strength of a country therefore determined its representation at the conference. While high-income countries could send representatives to multiple concurrent sessions, low and middle-income countries had to prioritise discussion groups.
For example, many African countries were represented by just one individual. These countries experience a large number of pesticide poisoning deaths. However, their representatives were unable to attend a session on elimination of Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), if they were required in a concurrent session on finance.
This dilemma often resulted in a biased discussion. Many voices that would have argued in favour of HHP elimination were missing from the session. As a result, there appeared to be less support for the measure than was actually the case.
Furthermore, the language of the conference was English. There were no interpreters to help non-English speaking participants, despite this being a majority group, who were visibly struggling to understand the discussion and put across their point of view with conviction.
‘Flexible texts’ set ‘low expectations’
In my view, the voluntary nature of this policy framework should enable all stakeholders to set ambitious targets, even though they might seem unattainable for now.
However, it was quite the contrary.
Stakeholders negotiated for hours about textual words, their placement, and use of propositions and conjunctions like “with”, “for”, “and”, “or”. A lot was said on very little things.
For example, there were long discussions about replacing “eliminate” with “reduce” or “minimize”; and replacing “have’ with future tense “will have”.
I observed that, while there is no way everyone can be happy at the same time, everyone appeared to work towards being ‘less happy’.
That is what negotiation does, it makes everyone compromise and agree to dilute a perfect, clear, ambitious statement/text into a generic, unclear, unmeasurable, extremely long, unreadable, incomprehensible text that allows every stakeholder to interpret the same text in ways that would suit their own agenda.
Framing a statement that can have different meanings is a piece of collective diplomatic artwork.
However, compromise does not mean inaction but freedom to implement at their own will and speed. The policy on banning lead in paint did not happen overnight.
Countries do not want to be held accountable for not doing what they promised to achieve. They therefore like flexible texts that set low expectations making it easier for them to exceed them.
I now know why any policy level change takes such a long time.
Pesticide producing countries put economic interests first?
Benefits of an equal system can only be realized when its beneficiaries act responsibly.
For example, when the pesticide producing group and their allies opposed a target to stop exporting hazardous substances, they failed to recognize thousands of deaths happening in low and middle-income countries. The majority of this group were high-income countries that had already banned these pesticides for use in their own homeland.
They instead argued that low and middle-income countries should take responsibility for banning the import of these substances.
There was a strong counter argument – that low and middle-income countries lack the capacity and resources to stop black market trade of such substances in their territories. Despite this, the original text for the target (placing obligations on the pesticide producing countries) was ultimately opposed.
A similar argument was made by representatives from the same group of countries when debating bans on Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs). It was interesting to see how they were somehow able to decide the fate of a resolution that aimed to solve a problem belonging to other countries.
On the one hand, many high-income countries have banned HHPs to protect human and environmental life in their homeland. On the other hand, they still want to produce and sell HHPs to low and middle-income countries, where people are dying from pesticide poisoning.
My question being, who is then going to be responsible for the deaths? Is it low and middle-income countries for their lack of resources or incapacity? Or is it the high-income countries for putting their economic interests first?
Time to act responsibly
SAICM is very important. It has previously brought about crucial policy changes in the African region.
Change is indeed a slow process. However, it is high time we act responsibly and stop being happy with ‘less happy.’
Concerted and synchronized efforts are needed to protect our planet and catch up with the rate at which harmful chemicals are impacting human lives, environment and biodiversity.
Project & Policy Officer, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP)
Shweta Dabholkar is a Project and Policy Officer based in Mumbai, India. She is currently developing a behaviour change technology solution to increase farmer compliance to government led sustainable agriculture programmes.