28 November 2003

European Effort to Ban Asbestos Fails:

At the tenth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-10) for an International Legally Binding Instrument for the Application of the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (Rotterdam Convention) — held from 17-21 November in GenevaCanada and Russia blocked the listing of asbestos-chrysotile. Had the listing gone through, trading of the chemical substance would only be allowed with the prior informed consent of the importing country. Countries also discussed future cooperation with the WTO as well as other issues pending prior to the expected entry into force of the Rotterdam Convention in 2004.

No ban on economically valuable asbestos: 

Four forms of asbestos were added to the Convention’s PIC list. However, the decision on whether to add the fifth form — chrysotile asbestos — was postponed, despite the fact that chrysotile asbestos accounts for 94 percent of the commercial asbestos production and is known to cause cancer. The EU was the main demandeur for listing chrysotile asbestos, supported by Switzerland, Chile, Argentina, Norway, the Gambia and the Congo. However, the proposal was blocked by Canada and Russia, supported by the Ukraine, China, Zimbabwe, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Egypt and Morocco. For most of the opposing countries, chrysotile asbestos is an economically valuable substance. Canada, for example, is the leading exporter of chrysotile asbestos, with an industry estimated to bring in CAD 2,500 million annually and employs 2,000 workers. Russia, on the other hand, is the world’s largest producer of asbestos. Zimbabwe and China are also large asbestos producers and exporters.

As decisions under the Rotterdam Convention need to be taken by consensus, countries decided to give Canada more time to conduct national consultations on the issue and postponed a final decision. Environmental groups such as WWF criticised Canada and Russia for being overly focused on their self-interest. Clifton Curtis, Director of WWF’s Toxic Programme said “chrysotile unequivocally met the Convention’s requirements, and those governments opposing its listing blatantly disregarded the treaty obligations”.

In light of the chrysatile asbestos discussion, Parties have expressed concern that the conflict between environmental and health concerns on the one hand and economic and trade concerns on the other hand would arise frequently once the Convention has entered into force. The Chair of INC-10 thus also reminded delegates that the Convention does not take into account economic and trade considerations when listing a chemical.

Consensus was reached on adding DNOC and its salt to the Convention’s PIC list as well as dustable powder formulations of benomyl, carbofuran and thiram.

Background of the Rotterdam Convention:

The Rotterdam Convention was adopted in 1998 under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). To date, it has been signed by 73 states and ratified by 49; it will enter into force once 50 nations have ratified it. 

The Convention aims to assist governments, particularly in developing countries to avoid accidents and pollution related to chemicals and to protect people and the environment from the harmful results of chemicals trade. The PIC procedure, which is part of the Rotterdam Convention, is aimed at making information about hazardous chemicals readily available in order to facilitate informed decisions on the import of chemicals and the associated risks. When a chemical is added to the PIC procedure list, a country cannot export the chemical unless the importing country, in writing, has accepted to receive the shipment. Should a country agree to import the chemical, the Convention would promote its safe use through labelling measures and through technical assistance.

The Rotterdam Convention is one of six multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that WTO Members are focusing on in their Committee on Trade and Environment debate on the relationship between WTO rules and specific trade obligations in MEAs (see BRIDGES Trade Biores, 11 July 2003).

“Summary of the Tenth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for an international legally binding instrument for the application of the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade,” IISD’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin, 24 November, 2003; “Asbestos Nations Block Placement of Chrysotile on Danger List,” ENS, 18 November 2003; “WWF Slams Canada and Russia for blocking listing of asbestos as a dangerous substance,” WWF, 18 November 2003.

Source: International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD). 28 November 2003