Defending the right to know: The Rotterdam Convention must be amended

At this year’s Rotterdam Convention meeting in May in Geneva (COP 11), Solidar Suisse is calling for the adoption of an amendment of the Convention.

Since many years Solidar Suisse has been fighting together with numerous partner organisations around the world (such as the Australian Trade Union Confederation ACTU, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA, Building and Woodworkers International BWI, the International Trade Union Confederation ITUC, Pesticide Action Network International PAN, the International Pollutants Elimination Network IPEN as well as many groups fighting for a global ban on the use of asbestos) for a regulation of trade with hazardous chemicals and pesticides. With the “Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade”, there is an international agreement which would provide for such a regulation. While it does not ban hazardous substances from trade, it requires exporters to inform importing countries about certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides which are crossing their borders. Exports of chemicals contrary to the wishes of the importing country are not permitted.

The convention, which is binding under international law, intends to reduce environmental and health risks that may be caused by certain hazardous chemicals, such as asbestos. Already in 2006, the Chemical Review Committee (CRC) of the convention decided that chrysotile asbestos meets all requirements for listing on to Annex III of the Convention. However, the Rotterdam Convention has a fatal design flaw: The inclusion of a hazardous substance into the Annex requires the consent of all Parties to the agreement. Ever since, a small group of countries, led by Russia, has blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos at every Conference of Parties (COP). The listing of four highly toxic pesticides is also being blocked by a small group of countries. Even worse, the asbestos lobby uses the fact that asbestos is not covered by the Rotterdam Convention as a sales argument. In Asia and other regions of the world, they are advertising their deadly product as harmless. The consequences are deadly: According to recent estimates, over 200,000 people die every year of asbestos-related diseases. This makes asbestos the most common occupational cause of death.

From 1–12 May 2023, the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) is being held in Geneva. While we expect that Russia and other countries will again block the listing of asbestos and of the four blocked pesticides, there is – for the first time since the deadlock began in 2006 – a promising amendment proposal on the table, which by the beginning of COP 11 already had the official support of 14 Parties to the Convention, from all UN regional groups.[1]

The proposed amendment offers a new simple solution to improve the effectiveness of the Convention that builds on the work undertaken by Parties to date, whilst also protecting the consensus principle at its core. It enables Parties who want to share information about hazardous chemicals to continue to do so. In summary the proposal will, if approved:

  • Retain Annex III and preserve the consensus decision making process for listing. The primary objective of the Convention will continue to facilitate the listing in Annex III.
  • However, where chemicals that have been found by the Chemical Review Committee (CRC) to meet the criteria for listing in Annex III, but for which the COP is not able to agree by consensus to list, a new pathway is available. Listing on to this new annex (Annex VIII) must receive the support of a three fourths majority.
  • For chemicals listed in the new Annex VIII, the prior informed consent (PIC) procedure would also apply, but with the important new modification that an explicit consent will be required.
  • The proposed amendment does not create a parallel track. Instead, it preserves Annex III and its PIC procedure as the primary method for sharing information, while providing a new pathway for Parties who want to progress the sharing of information in relation to blocked chemicals

As part of a global coalition of more than 40 trade unions and civil society organisations, we are calling on all Parties to the Rotterdam Convention to support the proposed amendment in an open letter. If not being amended, the Convention is otherwise at risk of becoming an ineffective tool, not living up to the expectations and intentions that were shared when it was created. If concerned Parties fail to modernise the Convention, it will continue to fail to meet its full potential and more and more workers and consumers will be seriously injured and killed.

Recently three UN experts – Marcos Orellana, Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights; David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; and Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation – also issued a statement urging Parties to adopt the amendment proposal.

[1] The amendment proposal is being co-sponsored by the following 14 countries: Australia, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Costa Rica, Georgia, Ghana, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, the Republic of Maldives, South Africa, Switzerland, Togo and the United Kingdom.

The Right To Know

We call on Parties to adopt the amendment proposed by 14 Parties from all UN regions. We need bold actions that will keep our institutions and instruments relevant and fit to address the serious risks and harms posed by chemicals to human rights, human health and environmental integrity.

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