GUEST BLOG: Reflecting on this year’s meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, CEJAD’s Fredrick Otieno argues that the failure to reach consensus on hazardous chemicals is rendering the Convention useless.
The Conference of Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS COPs) met yet again this year to discuss and pass resolutions on pertinent issues concerning chemicals and wastes management, aimed at safeguarding health and the environment.
This year’s Convention convened in Geneva, Switzerland from 1st – 12th May 2023, including the 11th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Rotterdam Convention.
The COP brought together parties (countries), Civil Society Organizations, private sector and Intergovernmental Organizations such as World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization and International Labor Organization, among others.
Long-standing inability to list chemicals
Established in 1998, the Rotterdam Convention promotes transparency, shared responsibility and cooperation among countries by facilitating the exchange of information on hazardous industrial chemicals and pesticides in the international trade, including information on their harmful effects.
To facilitate this, the Convention establishes a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure. If a chemical is listed in Annex III of the Convention, it cannot be exported if the receiving country has not first received information and given its consent.
The PIC procedure allows countries, particularly those with weak systems for managing hazardous chemicals, to put in place adequate measures to protect vulnerable populations and the environment from the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals in international trade.
Before a chemical is proposed for listing, it has to go through a thorough review by the Chemicals Review Committee (CRC), the scientific body of the Convention. Only chemicals that meet the criteria for listing as set out in the Convention can be recommended for listing.
However, unfortunately, parties have failed on numerous occasions to reach a consensus on certain hazardous chemicals.
Five hazardous chemicals
This year, the COP was again invited to consider 7 chemicals for listing. Two of these were pesticides that had never been considered before. Of the new two pesticides, only Terbufos was listed while no consensus was reached on listing Iprodione.
Five of the chemicals had been discussed in more than one COP without reaching a consensus, despite having been reviewed by Chemicals Review Committee and found to meet the criterial of listing under the Convention. These chemicals are Chrysotile Asbestos, Acetochlor, Carbosulfan, Paraquat and Fenthion.
Chrysotile Asbestos was recommended for listing by Chemicals Review Committee in 2005 and has been discussed in nine consecutive COPs since 2006 without reaching a consensus. Altogether, this chemical has been discussed for the last 18 years without any meaningful success.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), all types of asbestos have been linked to cancer. The WHO estimates that 125 million people in the world are exposed to this dangerous chemical. In 2004, WHO linked asbestos to 107,000 cancer deaths.
Carbosulfan, a widely used pesticide, was recommended for listing in 2015 and has been discussed in four consecutive COPs since 2017. This amounts to 7 years of discussions without consensus.
The pesticide was proposed for listing on grounds of being highly toxic to the genetic systems, high risk of exposure to children through diet, ability to contaminate ground water and toxicity to birds, aquatic organisms, bees and earthworms.
Acetochlor, a herbicide pesticide, has been discussed in three consecutive COPs since 2019 without reaching an agreement on its listing. This is 5 years of negotiation without any breakthrough.
Yet, this pesticide was recommended for listing because it can affect the genetic system, has a high potential to contaminate underground and surface water and is highly toxic to aquatic organisms, bees, birds and non-target terrestrial organisms.
Paraquat Dichloride at or above 276 g/l formulations have been considered for listing since 2022 and has been discussed in two COPs without a consensus. This formulation was recommended for listing because of high incidences of poisonings.
The listing of fenthion (ultra-low-volume (ULV) formulations at or above 640 g active ingredient/L) was first considered by COP 10 in 2022. The pesticide was discussed for a second time this year by COP 11 without reaching a consensus. This pesticide formulation is very harmful to birds and bees. It is also dangerous to the nervous system.
A new proposal
Due to the long-standing failure to list certain chemicals in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, COP 11 was invited to consider a proposal to add a new Annex VIII to the Convention, and the enhance listing of chemicals.
According to the proposal, Annex VIII would list chemicals approved for listing by Chemicals Review Committee which had not received a consensus. This would effectively allow the process of information exchange to begin, but only to parties that had ratified Annex VIII. More importantly, Annex VIII was seen as an intermediate measure for chemicals that would eventually be listed in Annex III.
The proposal was negotiated by parties for days without any breakthrough.
The proponents of this amendment expressed their disappointment with the stalemate in listing certain chemicals. They expressed concerns that while consensus is important, it was being abused by a few parties to exercise veto powers over the majority that is willing to move forward.
They elaborated that the new Annex VIII would allow those parties that are ready to move forward with the PIC procedure to do so while giving time for the chemical to be listed in Annex III through consensus.
On the other hand, the proposal did not sit well with some parties. Opponents claimed that the proposal would divide the parties by creating two parallel conventions, where some parties would be a party to Annex III and others to Annex VIII.
They further argued that the proposal undermines the consensus principle of the Convention since it provided that a decision to list chemicals in the new Annex would be made by a 3/4 majority vote. Other concerns raised included issues related to trade barriers as well as confusion during implementation.
On the final day of the Convention, a vote eventually took place to determine whether to adopt the proposal. 70% of parties, an overwhelming majority, voted in favour. However, as it narrowly failed to secure the required 3/4 majority, it ultimately failed to go through.
Where is the price?
Having closely followed the negotiations, it was clear to me that there were two camps of parties at the COP; those that wanted to improve the effectiveness of the Convention, and those that wanted the status quo to remain.
While I respect the concerns and issues raised by the parties that opposed the listing of certain chemicals, and the proposal to amend the Convention, it was also clear to me that some countries were prioritizing economic interests over the objective of the Convention itself.
It was no coincidence that the parties who opposed the listing of chemicals also rejected the proposal for a new Annex. In fact, some parties did not even want to engage in constructive negotiations, and were set to block the amendment from the very beginning.
It saddens me that while the proponents were very clear on the purpose of the amendment and why it was important for protecting human health and the environment, the opponents were glued on issues of trade barriers, challenges during implementation and the creation of two parallel conventions. This begs the question, what is the focus of the Convention?
The Convention’s goal is to protect health and the environment from the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals in international trade through information sharing. The opponents’ arguments were clearly outside the scope and objectives of the Convention. Such arguments should not be entertained.
The arguments were in bad faith and were, in my view, meant to sabotage the proposed amendment. They were designed to protect the parties’ economic interests, notthe health of their citizenry and the environment.
It is wrong to put the economy before people and the environment. A healthy population and clean environment are a cornerstone of economic prosperity. The parties should be reminded that the right to health and a clean environment are fundamental human rights that should never be compromised for economic gains.
At the same time, there are huge economic costs being incurred by countries, without their knowledge, due to inaction on chemicals and waste management. Perhaps, it is high time the BRS secretariate and countries carry out an analysis of the economic costs of failure to list chemicals in Annex III and put to rest arguments that listing of chemicals would negatively impact the economy of some parties.
A need to improve effectiveness
To improve the effectiveness of the Convention, the BRS secretariate should carry out studies and collect evidence that can debunk the claims which have been fronted for many years by some parties to block the listing of chemicals. These should relate to, but not limited to, the impact of listing on trade, food security and economic development.
Furthermore, the procedure for listing of chemicals should still be relooked. While respecting the consensus spirit of the Convention, there is a need for an alternative route to listing of chemicals where consensus cannot be reached.
It is pointless for parties to discuss a chemical in more than one COP without any breakthrough and continue deferring the same to future COPs. A section of parties cannot continue to block listing of chemicals at every COP while doing absolutely nothing to address their concerns. They should to be held accountable!
It is ethically wrong for a minority of parties to hold the rest back because of their selfish interests. The Convention should provide for a timeline upon which, if consensus is not reached, then an alternative route is explored. The failure to list chemicals approved by the Chemicals Review Committee is rendering the Convention useless.
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