Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 1, January - March 2001

The Global Community Agrees on a Treaty to Eliminate POPs

On December 9, 2000 in Johannesburg, South Africa, 122 countries reached agreement on eliminating the use and production of 12 persistent organic pollutants (POPs) intentionally produced, and the elimination of by-products such as dioxins and furans as a long term goal. This treaty is a major step forward because it is about elimination of production and use of chemicals and prevention of the creation of new chemicals that would meet the POPs criteria. It creates the needed international legal framework for action on these chemicals. Great Lakes activists see this agreement as a victory as it makes the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement stronger because it reinforces the need for elimination of the most toxic chemicals on earth.

The presence of environmental activists throughout these negotiations were effective as they organized direct actions and demonstrations to emphasize the need for a strong treaty. The most important part of that effort was the corridor talk that took place between delegates and observers to exchange views on some significant aspects of the treaty. The delegates came to an agreement on the final text after 24 hours of continuous negotiations.

The highlights of the proposed treaty are:

1) Intentionally produced POPs will be prohibited according to Article D(1) of the new treaty.

Every country will have to take legal and administrative measures to eliminate the production and use of the twelve chemicals listed in annex A of the treaty, with the exception of DDT.

Countries who are still fighting malaria will be able to get an exemption to continue to use DDT for killing mosquitoes who are the main malaria vector.

2) An overall goal of elimination of POPs with some qualifications.

For by-products such as dioxins and furans, the treaty calls for reduction of anthropogenic sources of POPs by-products and, where feasible, ultimate elimination. It also calls for substitution of materials or products to prevent the formation and release of POPs by-products.

3) POPs stockpiles are targetted.

For waste containing POPs, the treaty calls for the identification of stockpiles of POPs and wastes containing POPs. These wastes are to be disposed of in ways that irreversibly transform the POPs or ensures that they no longer exhibit POPs characteristics. Substantial discussion happened on the use of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal as a mechanism to deal with disposal of wastes containing POPs. Many countries felt that the Basel Convention does not ask for the use of specific disposal technologies that would insure that POPs are destroyed. In the spirit of cooperation, the parties to the POPs treaty agreed to work closely with the Basel Convention secretariat on this topic.

4) General and country specific exemptions are included.

Some general exemptions (Article D(5)) were agreed upon for use of POPs in laboratories and as trace contaminants in products. Other exemptions are country specific and are related to the use of DDT to fight malaria. For example, trade in POPs or products containing POPs will not be allowed except for specific reasons such as exporting DDT to countries that need it to control malaria.

5) The precautionary principle is operationalized.

A significant focus of these negotiations was on the precautionary principle, in general, and more specifically identifying how the approach can be incorporated into key articles of the treaty such as the preamble, the objectives of the treaty and selection of new chemicals. The language around the use of the precautionary approach was a major corridor debate among many delegates. Several delegates such as the U.S. and Australian delegation expressed strong opposition to the inclusion of precautionary language mainly due to the pressures of the chemical industry lobby. Other delegations such as the European Union pushed strongly to include precautionary language in every part of the treaty mentioned above. Events such as mad cow disease, where usual risk-based science was unable to prevent or stop the spreading of that disease into the human population stimulated the support of this strong precautionary approach by the European Union.

Canada played the lead role in brokering this issue between the two sides. As a result, the precautionary language has been included in the following:

  • Objectives stating that the treaty be "mindful of the principle 15 of the Rio declaration;"
  • Addition of POPs (Article F (5)), where it states that "lack of full scientific certainty shall not prevent the proposal from proceeding;" and
  • in Article F(7) where the parties can use precaution to decide whether to list a chemical or to decide what other course of action should be taken.

6) Financial commitments to the treaty by developed countries.

Finance mechanisms were a major focus of these negotiations. Developing countries rightfully stated that without financial help they would not be able to implement the treaty. The developed countries committed to financially assist developing countries and countries with economies in transition to carry out the commitments in the treaty. The Global Environment Facility has been identified as the interim mechanism for funding, and has agreed to provide up to 150 million US$ to these countries for the phase out of the production and use of POPs.

While the outcome of the fifth and final negotiating session was viewed as a success, there is work to be done. Delegates to the negotiating session are expected to convene once again in Stockholm, Sweden in May 2001 to participate in the signing ceremony for the treaty. The treaty will only come into force and be a legally binding agreement once 50 countries have ratified the treaty. This will require countries to include the treaty's provisions in their national legal framework. This process can take up to four years.

The Canadian challenge

For Canada, the challenge of this new treaty and its implementation nationally is considerable. If Canada is to be the leader of the international charge against POPs it needs to focus its national action plan on the two following family of substances: PCBs and dioxins and furans. In the case of PCBs the main problem is to find and promote destruction technologies that would not produce additional POPs compounds such as dioxins and furans. The actual plan to burn PCBs in the Swan Hill incinerator in Alberta or the proposed incinerator in Kirkland Lake, Ontario is unacceptable from a social and environmental perspective because it will create more environmental contamination by releasing POPs in the surrounding area of those facilities.

The dioxin and furan challenge is a major one too! The Canada-wide standard setting process which is currently on-going, is the main process by which Canada has planned to eliminate dioxin and furan emissions. We have to be concerned … As we all know there are major flaws in this process and there is essentially no guarantees that public health and the environment will be protected from these dangerous emissions.

Members of the Toxics Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network including Great Lakes United, CELA, Reach for Unbleached and World Wildlife Fund Canada have played a significant role during these negotiations and will continue to monitor the activities of the Canadian government as it begins to address the issue of ratifying the treaty.
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Stéphane Gingras, Great Lakes United, was a member of the Canadian delegation for the Fifth Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee Session in Johannesburg, South Africa.

A version of this article was published in Great Lakes United newsletter, Toxic Watch (Volume 5, Number 11), December 2000