The Rotterdam Convention 2019
[Updated May 10, 2019]
At previous meetings of the Rotterdam Convention, there have been representations by civil society groups monitoring the process of listing hazardous chemicals on Annex III of the Convention. The inclusion of a substance on this list triggers the implementation of mandatory rules designed to provide prior informed consent so that importing countries are fully aware of potential dangers. Co-author of this article Laurie Kazan-Allen attended COP6 (2013) along with colleagues from Japan, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the US to observe and take part in discussions regarding chrysotile (white) asbestos.1 This week, colleagues from Indonesia, India, Australia, Vietnam, Switzerland and Hong Kong have been tasked with that job. Their work is being conducted under the banner of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN) to which all the mission members and supporters belong.
Monday, May 6, 2019. Members of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN) Mission to COP9 (the 9th conference of the Parties) of the United Nations Rotterdam Convention convened in Geneva for discussions. The participants included: Omana George, from the Asia Resource Monitor Centre, Hong Kong; Phillip Hazelton from Australias Union Aid Abroad APHEDA; Pooja Gupta from the Indian Ban Asbestos Network; Surya Ferdian from the Local Initiative for OSH Network, Indonesia; asbestos victim Mr. Subono, Chair of SERBUK Trade Union (Indonesia) and Bernhard Herold, from Solidar Suisse, Switzerland.
Colleagues from the Australian Firefighters Trade Union, who were well aware of the consequences of occupational asbestos exposures, agreed to accommodate the Missions posters on the walls of their booth and display delegation materials.
The location of the exhibition space was right next to that of the pro-chrysotile asbestos delegation.
At 18:30 there was a screening of the French language version of the 2019 documentary Breathless at the Fonction Cinema, in General Dufour Street, Geneva. In attendance was Eric Jonckheere who worked with the films producers and director to develop this project which highlighted the price paid by ordinary people in Europe and Asia for the asbestos industrys profits.
Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. The ABAN delegation held a vigil and media conference at the entrance to the Convention Center. Prior to the commencement of these activities, members of the Russian pro-chrysotile delegation exhibited the boorish behavior we had grown to expect of them from previous COPs, shouting out their slogans to no one in particular. They mounted a rather forlorn demonstration in the foyer of the Convention Center holding up pro-asbestos propaganda and flags stating their demands for: No Chrysotile Ban and Chrysotile Forever.
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
During the morning vigil, ABAN delegation members Phillip Hazelton, Omana George, Pooja Gupta, Subono and Bernhard Herold made short presentations about the need to list chrysotile asbestos on Annex III and the consequences of failing to do so not only for human beings but for the viability of the Convention. Phillip Hazleton voiced the demands of asbestos victims and trade union organizations to include chrysotile on Annex III saying that it was shocking that the financial interests of just a few Parties can block the desires of the many to protect workers from toxic exposures.
A copy of an Open Letter to COP9 Rotterdam Convention delegates supported by organizations representing over 200 million workers led by the ITUC as well as asbestos victims groups, occupational safety and health campaigners, NGOs, scientists, academics and concerned citizens was presented by Mr. Subono to Charlie Avis, a representative of the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions.2 White roses and a burning candle were displayed to represent the more than 200,000 people dying from asbestos-related diseases every year. Journalists, including explorer and TV presenter Paul Rose reported on the demonstration.
Paul Rose reporting on the ABAN demonstration May 7, 2019. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
Paul Rose joining the ABAN demonstration.
Condemning the behaviour of the Russian-led cabal that prevented the listing of chrysotile asbestos on six previous occasions, Fiona Murie, Global Director Construction and Health and Safety of the Building and Wood Workers International, told the group:
they don't care about the science, or the international consensus regarding the need to stop using chrysotile asbestos because they make their money from selling it. They don't care about the suffering and human costs, because it is not their class that is affected. They don't care about the economic costs, because those costs are externalised and picked up by the taxpayer. These vested interests [at the] United Nations have made a laughing stock of the Rotterdam Convention. It is simply not fit for purpose... We demand to be heard chrysotile asbestos belongs in the last century, not this one.
A photo of the vigil was headline news of the official daily report of the Rotterdam Convention captioned with the words: Members of civil society demonstrate outside the venue, calling for chrysotile asbestos to be included in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention so it can only be traded with 'prior informed consent. Four other photos of the demonstration were also included in the bulletin including one featuring Omana George from the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, and asbestos victim Subono from Indonesia.3
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
At 2:00 p.m. Delegation members had planned to demonstrate at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office ironically located in Avenue de la Paix (Peace Avenue) and submit a copy of the Open Letter to COP9 delegates, in English and Russian, for the attention of the Russian authorities. Unfortunately permission was not given for this activity so the protest was held under the Broken Chair sculpture, located outside the Russian consulate. One protestor quipped that perhaps this was a more appropriate place as the sculpture was a symbol of the malfunctioning of the Convention. Swiss media covered the action and interviewed delegation members.
The discussions inside the Convention chambers on May 7 were summarized in the official bulletin. Interventions from several national delegations emphasized the need for the Convention to fulfil its objectives and overcome the obstacles imposed by the consensus principle which had allowed a handful of Parties to frustrate the wishes of the majority. Revisions to Articles 16 and 22 of the Convention were mentioned. Needless to say, the Russian Federation and Zimbabwe asbestos stakeholding nations and the International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations Chrysotile were amongst the 13 Parties supporting the maintenance of decision-making by consensus. A spokesperson for the Pesticide Alliance Network supported a proposal to replace consensus-based decision-making with voting with representatives of the International Pesticide Alliance Network and the Association of Environmental Education for Future Generations (Tunisia) saying that should the proposed amendments fail then voting should be the last resort.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019. During the morning plenary session, procedural issues were on the agenda and delegates considered the addition of a compliance procedure via a new Annex to the Convention (Annex VII). In the contact group in previous days only Iran objected to a revised text; Iran continued to block consensus in the plenary session. After a rather heated debate with opposition led by Iran, the Russian Federation, China and India, and thanks in part to the intervention from Switzerland a vote was requested the first one ever within the Rotterdam Convention. Despite appeals to not proceed on legal and procedural grounds by the small group of opposing Parties, 120 Parties voted yes to adding a mechanism specifying procedures to facilitate compliance and 6 voted no Iran, Namibia, North Korea, India, Cuba and Qatar. While some felt that the adoption of Annex VII was a significant accomplishment which will assist parties to identify and address gaps in complying with the Convention, with the aim of ensuring that governments have the information they need about hazardous chemicals to assess the risks and take informed decisions when importing chemicals and might also rescue the Convention from irrelevance, others remained frustrated by the fact that compliance was not mandatory, with Parties able to opt out.4 One observer remarked that this vote had the potential to open the door for further votes on introducing new annexes, which could eventually help to break the deadlock on chrysotile.
In the afternoon, it was time for the plenary to consider listing chemicals recommended by the Chemical Review Committee on Annex III of the Convention. At the beginning of this session, Indonesian trade union leader and asbestos victim Subono, a member of the ABAN delegation, was invited to speak. According to one observer: Subono spoke very emotionally and forcefully about his life, work and health, and appealed to the floor to list chrysotile asbestos. He said the financial gain of a few should not put at risk the lives of the many. In his remarks, made in his native language and translated into English by Surya Ferdian, Subono pointed out that:
Almost half of all global occupational diseases are caused by chrysotile asbestos but still [there has been] no action here on this substance. COP9 marks the 7th COP over 12 years that chrysotile asbestos has been recommended but blocked. We condemn this veto.
We know the lie of safe use. I worked in inhuman, dusty working conditions without real PPE. This made me and my friends often experience pain, coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue. Examinations that companies did were company secrets and not accessible. We demand, at this meeting, chrysotile can be included in the list of Appendix III or that the Convention is reformed to ensure this. Our hope is that all delegates here support it.
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.
A subsequent intervention by Bernhard Herold, from Solidar Suisse and a member of the ABAN COP9 delegation, echoed Subonos comments. Herold told delegates that the 12-year stalemate on listing chrysotile:
cannot continue like this. It is your obligation to find a way out of this blockade now. What is the sense of this Convention if a small group of countries, driven by vested interests, can hijack the Rotterdam Convention and block the listing of a product, despite of clear scientific evidence for its severe threats to human health?
Millions of people have died of asbestos related diseases around the world and continue to die due to the continued use of chrysotile asbestos, as you have already heard this morning from Mr. Subono who himself is a victim of chrysotile. Why do you allow this to happen? Why do you let the chrysotile lobby hijack the Rotterdam Convention and prevent proper information through prior informed consent? This is not about consensus. This is about the tyranny of a small minority against a large majority .
You cannot continue kicking the can down the road. This would be totally irresponsible, contemptuous, and lastly deadly for many. Its in your hands.
In the end, there was no happy ending. One hundred and fifty-one Parties failed to overcome the objections of the Russian-led veto. A four-page chronological record of the contributions of national delegations and others to the debate (based on contemporaneous notes) showed overwhelming support for listing. Summarizing the discussions:
Meanwhile back in London, demonstrators from around the country gathered at the Russian Embassy in Kensington to call on Russia to support the inclusion of chrysotile on Annex III.
The protestors took photographs in front of the Embassy and a delegation including Graham Dring, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, Bill Lawrence of the Construction Safety Campaign and Laurie Kazan-Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat were escorted by an armed police officer around the corner to the Embassy of the Russian Federation Residence where they were permitted to hand over copies of the Open Letter in English and Russian for the attention of Ambassador Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko. Speaking through the unopened gate, a member of the Ambassadors staff asked about the letter, and Graham Dring explained that the protestors were calling on Russia to protect vulnerable populations the world over by supporting UN action on chrysotile asbestos.5
At the end of the May 8 afternoon plenary sessions the President referred to the frustration in the chamber resulting from the chrysotile stalemate and deferred chrysotile to COP 10.
Commenting on what transpired at COP9, Phillip Hazelton, a member of the ABAN delegation, decried the chrysotile veto saying:
The long term blockage to listing chrysotile, the worlds biggest occupational disease killer must end and its up to those countries who are as frustrated as we are, to do it. They must come forward with a viable solution to break the blockade on the listing of chrysotile asbestos. We have some options, lets get on with it!6
May 8 and 10, 2019
1 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention - An Activist's Diary. May 21, 2013.
2 Open Letter (English). An Appeal to the 161 Parties at COP 9 of the Rotterdam Convention1 No more delays, no more vetoes. April 20, 2019.
Открытое Письмо. Обращение к 161-му Государству-Стороне Роттердамской Конвенции1 , участвующим в КС-9 ‘Нет дальнейшему откладыванию, нет использованию вето’ 20 апреля 2019 г.
3 2019 Meetings of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions
Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste. 7 May, 2019.
5 Press Release. Urgent Calls for UN Action on Asbestos. May 8, 2019.
6 Media release. Rotterdam Convention COP9. May 10, 2019