Rotterdam Convention 2013: Dossier of Daily Reports
Today the asbestos tribes gathered in the plenary room at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. The representatives of the asbestos industry were out en masse; some were included in official government delegations, others present as observers. Representing civil society was a coalition of groups and interests gathered under the umbrella of the Rotterdam Convention Alliance (ROCA). ROCA delegates came from all parts of the world and had a wide range of languages and experience of high-level international gatherings. Some were veterans, some were new to the arcane language and procedural ramifications of a multilateral treaty. All of them were determined to see chrysotile asbestos listed on Annex III of the Convention.
The day began with a ROCA briefing and various regional group meetings. At 10 a.m. the first plenary session started. It soon became clear that the morning would evaporate with time spent on various issues which did not include chrysotile. When we broke for lunch at 1 p.m. we were hopeful that upon the resumption of the session at 3 o'clock, the subject on the agenda would be chrysotile.
At 1:15 in Place des Nations, a demonstration was mounted by groups representing thousands of asbestos victims all over the world. Two coachloads of French activists took part, bringing with them their banners, the French flag, masks and bags of goodwill. From Italy representatives came from Casale Monferrato and Turin; they included victims, activists and trade unionists. Other groups represented included the UK Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups, the German Association of Asbestos Victims, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed, and Ban Asbestos Japan. There were speeches and denunciations. Calls were made for the UN to take decisive action on chrysotile. Too many deaths, not enough action was a common refrain.
When we resumed the proceedings in the plenary session at 3:15 we did so with baited breath. By 3:45 the wait was over. It some became all too clear that an impasse remained regarding the listing of chrysotile. Of the 143 parties which were registered as attending the conference, over the next 90 minutes 7 spoke out against listing. It was, of course, the usual suspects: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and India.
The frustration levels in the room were rising, as one after the other of them mouthed the standard pro-chrysotile propaganda: there is insufficient scientific evidence, chrysotile can be used safely, the use of unproven asbestos substitutes remains problematic.
Time was evaporating and the ROCA spokeswoman listed to speak had yet to be called. As the minutes ticked away we felt the possibility of our making an intervention lessen. Finally, the President gave us the floor. On behalf of ROCA, Laurie Kazan-Allen addressed the plenary session: "The world is watching what is being done in this chamber," she said. "To safeguard human health and preserve the Rotterdam Convention, we urge every Party to support the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III."
With those words echoing in the room, the session was brought to a close. This, the first day, was just the beginning. Discussions on chrysotile will continue throughout the week.
Having witnessed the obstructionist behavior of the Russian asbestos cabal at the Convention meetings yesterday, we were in no doubt when we arrived at the Conference Centre what today would hold.
As we entered the building, we were greeted by a pile of glossy asbestos industry propaganda magazines (12 pages in full color) which had been translated into English. Entitled in screaming capitals PEOPLE FOR CHRYSOTILE they extolled the health-giving benefits of all things chrysotile.
Article after article praised the benefits of the asbestos industry and the life it had given to people who lived in the Russian town of Asbest.
As well as conveying the chrysotile party line, the publication attacked the anti-asbestos campaign as evil. This was the word used by Natalia Karavayeva, Vice Principal of the Asbest Polytechnic School. The article by Sofia Shkarednaya, Veteran of the Chrysotile Industry, went so far as to blame the current European Union economic crisis on the EU asbestos ban.
Discussions amongst activists and delegates revealed a palpable loss of patience; not only with the seven parties which are holding the Convention to ransom but also with the Convention itself. This much-lauded modest instrument, as it was termed last night by one delegate, looks increasingly discredited. If on its 4th attempt, the Parties are unable to resolve the commercial veto imposed by a handful of vested interests, what is to prevent the producers of other hazardous substances using similar tactics.
An asbestos side-event this afternoon provided the perfect opportunity to inform delegates of the asbestos reality in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Dozens of Conference delegates were joined by representatives of civil society to hear veteran campaigner Sugio Furuya from Japan, Engineer Fernanda Giannasi from Brazil, and filmmaker Alessandro Pugno describe the humanitarian disasters caused by asbestos in their countries.
From Eastern Europe, speakers Vladimir Kototenko and Elina Doszhanova described the almost total lack of public and professional awareness of the asbestos hazard in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The panel was in total agreement regarding the crucial importance of listing chrysotile asbestos on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention; they called on delegates to make every effort to resolve the current impasse in order to protect human health by providing the right to know to chrysotile importing countries.
As on previous occasions, Russian asbestos lobbyist Andrey Kholzakov attempted to interrupt the meeting. The screams he uttered denouncing the speakers, who he alleged spoke not one word of truth, were heard in the next room by delegates attending a discussion session in the plenary chamber.
Despite his best efforts, the meeting was adjudged a resounding success by delegates who engaged in a lively exchange of information with the experts present.
As Scarlet OHara said in Gone with the Wind: Tomorrow is another day.
Showdown at the Plenary
During the morning plenary session today (May 9), the President of the Rotterdam Convention asked the Parties which opposed listing of chrysotile to confirm their final positions following intensive discussions this week in contact groups, regional groups and side meetings.
Russia, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, India and Kazakhstan confirmed their vetoes on including chrysotile in Annex III.
As we listened to a torrent of Russian asbestos industry propaganda, it became patently clear that a coup d'état had taken place. A few well-resourced stakeholders had succeeded in trashing the basic premise of a UN protocol intended to protect populations from harmful substances.
Kyrgyzstan went as far as recommending that the chrysotile issue be deleted from the agenda of future meetings. This, said the President, would not happen; at COP7, the matter will be revisited.
The Convention's impotence allows the status quo to continue; the global trade in deadly asbestos will remain unregulated and unfettered by any global agreement for the foreseeable future.
Finally, the President gave the floor to the Australian delegation. Spokesman Andrew McNee made a succinct and cogent argument (see: text of Australian Statement) that highlighted the immense economic and human cost to Australians of his country's asbestos heritage.
The impact of this intervention spread around the chamber as one country after another raised their flag to express support for Australia's position. Those that stood up to be counted included: the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Cameroon, Gabon, Kenya, Costa Rica, Liberia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Sudan, Israel, Benin, Paraguay, El Salvador and Qatar.
Following a recommendation by Costa Rica, which was seconded by El Salvador, countries were requested to raise their flags if they wished to show support for the Australian motion. This "virtually unprecedented" action made clear the overwhelming desire of the majority of Convention Parties to designate chrysotile as a hazardous substance.
The End of Innocence
Tyrannical forces have this week seized control of the Rotterdam Convention; the United Nations protocol which was born in hope has today been buried in ignominy. Russia and Zimbabwe, with the active support of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Vietnam and India now known as the "Dirty 7" have smashed through procedures and ignored rules to progress the financial interests of national asbestos stakeholders.
Representatives of these countries have been deaf, dumb and blind to the arguments of the Secretariat, the Chemical Review Committee and the 140+ Parties who support the listing of chrysotile.
The slick public relations campaign which has been rolled out at COP6 has attempted to contextualize the bad faith of the asbestos bullies as part of a civil society initiative to safeguard the welfare, future and rights of asbestos-producing communities. Everyday, a new magazine, book or handout has been distributed to reinforce the message under the banner: "NO CHRYSOTILE BAN."
Throughout COP6, the dissension over chrysotile has polluted discussions at plenary and contact group sessions as well as at meetings of regional groups to such an extent that calls are now being made for the United Nations Environment Programme to create a new forum within which this issue can be resolved. To this end, civil society activists will progress efforts to achieve an Asbestos Convention along the lines of instruments such as the Mercury Convention or the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
I am in no doubt that asbestos mercenaries are even now enjoying their COP6 "triumph." Such celebrations are, however, premature their behaviour has brought shame on their governments at the highest level. International agencies and trading partners of the Dirty 7 will need to reconsider relationships and future projects in light of what has been revealed in Geneva. Prioritizing financial interests over human life is an anathema to all civilized societies and to every religion.
Discussions which have taken place in Geneva reveal a growing resolve among developing countries to take unilateral action to deal with the asbestos hazard. To ensure that the future of our planet is one which is asbestos-free requires that each government enacts legislation prohibiting the production, use and sale of asbestos.
May 21, 2013