Chemical CoPs: Mixed results with a surprising, small revolution at the 11th hour

By Guilia Carlini intern based in Geneva
By Guilia Carlini, Geneva-based intern

From May 1st to May 15th, parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions met in Geneva to advance the global management of chemicals.

Each of these conventions deals with a distinct aspect of chemical management. Generally speaking:

  • The Basel Convention addresses the question of transboundary movements of waste to ensure that no waste is exported to a country that does not have the capacity to deal with it.
  • The Stockholm Convention deals with a specific kind of chemicals that are particularly concerning because of their persistent characteristics and aims at banning their production and use after rigorous scientific assessments.
  • The Rotterdam Convention deals with the trade of toxic substances, ensuring that the importer receives adequate information and expresses its consent before the import.

A large number of issues were on the menu of discussions under each of the conventions, including the listing of new chemicals under the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions, Guidelines on E-waste and on the recycling of certain categories of toxic waste, as well as a number of legal issues pertaining to the internal functioning of the Conventions.

As usual, the result from the meeting is a mixed bag: a small number of positive decisions (the listing of new chemicals under both the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions), disappointing compromises (the adoption of very weak ad interim guidelines on E-waste and the failure to terminate all currently-authorized uses of chemicals listed under the Stockholm Convention), and heartbreaking cases of corporate influence and lack of political will (the refusal by the Rotterdam Convention Conference of Parties to list highly toxic chemicals such as trichlorfon, paraquat, fenthion, or chrysotile asbestos as recommended by its scientific subsidiary body).

UN-Vote-ChemCOP_John-WickensIt is to be noted that the listing of chrysotile asbestos and paraquat under the Rotterdam Convention had been on the Conference of Parties’ (CoP) agenda for almost ten years, and it has been consistently blocked by a very small number of countries. The fact that just a few countries blocked the adoption of many decisions under each of the Conventions may have contributed to the small institutional revolution on the final night of negotiations that involved the listing of new chemicals under the Stockholm Convention.

On the last night of the meeting, when India once again stood alone to oppose the listing of PentaChloroPhenol (a pesticide generally referred to as PCP) under the Stockholm Convention, Switzerland asked the parties if all efforts to reach consensus had been exhausted. 91 of 100 parties agreed, and so expressed their will to take a vote pursuant, to Art. 21.3 of the Convention, which states that when ‘all efforts at consensus have been exhausted, and no agreement reached, the amendment [of the annex of the Convention] shall as a last resort be adopted by a three-fourths majority vote’. This was the first time in history that parties voted under the Stockholm Convention, and they successfully listed the pesticide with 90 votes in favor, 8 abstentions, and India and Nepal voting against.

Credit: John Wickens
Credit: John Wickens

Several parties did express their concern relating to voting (as reflected in the number of abstentions in the final vote), seeing it as a dangerous precedent to list substances that have not gone through the full evaluation of the Convention Science Committee (PCP had gone through the full evaluation and was recommended for listing by the Scientific Committee, in which India participates).

It is interesting to note that more often than not, parties who persistently block proposals are “opt-in” countries under the Stockholm Convention, for which the new listing of substances is not automatic. Accordingly, they only need to change their domestic legislation and comply with the new decisions if/when they expressly decide to do so. In order to avoid being perceived as the black sheep of the community, dissenting parties could try to have a more cooperative attitude in the future and rely on the opt-in option to safeguard their national interest, without appearing as the only dissenting voice.

Credit: John Wickens
Credit: John Wickens

The decision to take a vote could also encourages parties to avoid a mere “no” when discussing a proposal, and instead to provide more arguments or work towards a compromise. Countries may equally focus their energy on the preparatory technical stages of the evaluation process to prevent a chemical from reaching the CoP for a decision, or use more active diplomacy to create coalitions that support their positions.

Consensus should always be sought for decisions under all three conventions. But when consensus is impossible to reach, procedures differ from one convention to another. Under Basel’s rules of procedures, it is always possible to vote, while Stockholm and Rotterdam’s only allow voting in limited cases (such as the amendment of annexes under the Stockholm Convention).  For years, the CoPs have tried without success to harmonize the decision-making procedure under Stockholm and Rotterdam. It will be interesting to see how the decision to take a vote on the addition of a new chemical at this Stockholm CoP will impact the future of this harmonization discussion at the next CoP, as well as possibly under other Conventions that are similarly grappling with the question of consensus and decision-making procedures.

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Originally posted on May 22, 2015.