Taking the Asian Battle to Ban Asbestos Online!
A landmark series of recent events reinvigorated the campaign to eradicate the asbestos hazard from Asia. The first virtual international conference of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN), comprising plenary and break-out sessions held on September 28, 29 & 30,1 was a rousing success bringing together hundreds of speakers and attendees from 20 countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America.2 The provision of translation services in Bahasa, Bengali, Chinese, English, Hindi, Khmer, Korean, Lao and Vietnamese was a key factor in the presentation of information and the interchange of ideas.
The online conference was organized and hosted by ABAN and co-sponsored by the Asia Monitor Resource Centre Hong Kong (AMRC-HK), Australias Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), and other regional and international partners. The Zoom technology used, the commissioning of translators and the logistics of an online event attended by hundreds of people in multiple time zones over three days were handled with great professionalism.
Commenting on the organizational challenges faced by mounting a high-profile event during a global pandemic, ABAN Coordinator Sugio Furuya said:
ABAN members have been at the forefront of the Covid epidemic in many countries; their awareness of the toxic threat posed by invisible fibers gave them a head start in understanding the deadly nature of the coronavirus. This is the first virtual ABAN conference and we are optimistic that despite the obstacles we face we will reach even more activists than we had previously. The asbestos problem has NOT gone away during the pandemic. Asbestos vested interests have continued their propaganda offensives and gunboat diplomacy as seen by threats made in Ukraine over the withdrawal of Kazkh oil and vaccine supplies should the country make good on its pledge to ban asbestos.
The deaths of 4.7 million people during the pandemic have been a wake-up call to international agencies, regional authorities and national governments that we cannot continue our ruthless exploitation of the planet. There is no place in the post-pandemic world for the use of toxic substances like asbestos.3
Sugios optimism was well-founded; the 2021 virtual ABAN conference was able to accommodate many more attendees than in-person meetings had; the input from people representing additional civil society sectors and countries new to ABAN discussions was highly valued. It was noticeable from the faces on Zoom that many of the new ABAN members were younger than the founding members. The generational shift and injection of new blood with 21st century skill sets are, said IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen a huge boost for the campaign. With some of our leaders reaching retirement age, it is a great consolation to know that the struggle to end the asbestos slaughter in Asia is in good hands.
Closing Session of ABAN 2021 Virtual Conference on September 28, 2021.
Days before the ABAN event went live, a social media campaign was launched with a range of new resources and material to raise awareness of the ongoing asbestos struggle in Asia.4 One of the outreach tools circulated was a 16-second video featuring the conference poster produced by the Indonesian artist-activist Ajat Sudrajat. Also included in this clip were images from historic ban asbestos initiatives at high-profile events such as meetings of the United Nations and International Labor Organization as well as capacity building and grassroots projects to publicize the injustice still being foisted on vulnerable populations by asbestos stakeholders.
As always the voices of Asian asbestos victims was at the forefront of the ABAN conference, with videos featuring the personal stories of 58-year old Indonesian asbestosis sufferer Tuniyah, a former asbestos textile factory worker, 31-year old South Korean mesothelioma victim Lee Seong Jim and Cambodian construction workers Mrs. Keo Sokhem and Tout Vuthy, both of whom use asbestos-containing construction material on a daily basis.5 A poignant resource produced for the conference featured a song about the tortuous asbestos death of an Australian mine worker entitled He Fades Away by the late Scottish-Australian singer, songwriter, international socialist and revolutionary Alistair Hulett.
The contents of the conference presentations generated direct interchanges as well as conversations via a chat feature which enabled more questions to be asked and answered by participants with the requisite knowledge. Covid-19 was a subject on everyones mind with multiple speakers reporting:
It was great to see how empowered new ABAN members were by the availability of so many regional languages and the many opportunities to share frontline experiences. Information conveyed during break-out sessions was reported back to plenary sessions. The input by scientific, medical and experts was both timely and informative as were the reports from members of the regional ban asbestos groups: Ban Asbestos Network Japan (BANJAN), Ban Asbestos Network of Korea (BANKO), Indonesia Ban Asbestos Network (InaBAN), Vietnam Asbestos-related Diseases Elimination Group (VEDRA), Laos Ban Asbestos Network (LaoBAN), Cambodia Ban Asbestos Network (CamBAN), Bangladesh Ban Asbestos Network (BBAN), India Ban Asbestos Network (IBAN) and partnering civil society organizations. Despite the pandemic, ground-breaking research was, campaigners told us, still being progressed throughout Asia with more victims of asbestos-related diseases (ARDs) being identified, pioneering asbestos outreach projects being implemented and new trends emerging such as the increasing incidence of ARDs amongst women and the additional health hazard posed by asbestos use during a time and in a regional where weather disturbances were becoming both more severe and more frequent.6
Of course, the precise subjects considered, frustrations experienced and successful strategies identified remain confidential but the enthusiasm which was palpable during the sessions made it clear that the Zoom technology provided many benefits to the increasing number of activists anxious to be part of this vibrant multinational campaign.
A resolution issued by conference delegates on September 30, 2021 called on the international community to come together to stop the asbestos trade. In the text of this communiqué, ABAN members reiterated the following fundamental precepts:
It is no exaggeration to say that the conversations during ABAN 2021 revitalized the network which had been unable to meet since 2019. In 2021, the goal to ban asbestos in Asia the region accounting for the majority of annual asbestos consumption remains a top priority for an increasing number of people. Whereas asbestos issues were once sidelined as an arcane topic under the purview of industrial hygienists, they have now become a recognized part of the global discourse about our post-pandemic future. The campaign for an asbestos-free world is part of the discussion on preserving universal human rights, creating a sustainable future and achieving environmental justice.
On October 8, 2021, The United Nations Human Rights Council recognized for the first time that the right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment was a basic human right when it adopted by a vote of 43-0 a clean-environment resolution.8 It is noteworthy to report that three of the four abstentions in this vote were from the asbestos stakeholding countries of Russia, China and India. The clean-environment measure was, said one commentator, a significant advance [which will] help governments develop stronger and more coherent environmental protection laws and policies in their response to the climate emergency. Technologies which prioritize human health, respect the planet and preserve the environment are what is needed in the post-pandemic world. The future is asbestos-free.
October 13, 2021
1 On October 7, 2021 there were follow-up conversations amongst selected participants during another online meeting.
2 There were multiple delegates from: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Fiji and Australia; there were also single was participants from Finland, Colombia, Switzerland and the UK.
3 IBAS Press Release. Towards an Asbestos-Free Asia! September 27, 2021.
4 ABAN Media Release. Stop Asbestos Deaths in Asia Pacific. September 27, 2021.
5 Indonesia. Victim Diary: Tuniyah. June 14, 2021.
South Korea. Victim Diary: Lee Seong Jin. June 1, 2021.
Cambodia. Asbestos and its impacts in Cambodia (Khmer language).
June 15, 2021.
6 Building and Woodworkers. Asia: Advocates push for a total ban of asbestos trade. October, 2021.
7 Joint Resolution Asian Ban Asbestos Conference September 28-30, 2021. September 30, 2021.
8 Clean environment is a human right, UN council agrees. October 8, 2021.