The Continued Danger of Chrysotile Asbestos: Why We Must Overcome Consensus Paralysis in the Rotterdam Convention

The extreme hazards of Chrysotile Asbestos are widely known and accepted in Europe and the US. Because of this, many people are surprised to learn that the use and trade of the mineral is barely regulated under international law. For years the international community has attempted to list Chrysotile Asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention with little success.

The Rotterdam Convention contains an evolving list of chemicals that may only be traded internationally with the “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) of the importing country. The PIC procedure is the key provision of the Convention. The listing of a chemical alone does not constitute a ban; it merely puts the obligation on exporting States to ensure that the importing State is aware of the hazardous chemical being imported into its country and has the ability to stop or regulate it.

Past Conferences of Parties (COPs) of the Rotterdam Convention have failed to add chemicals to its list despite its own scientific body (Chemical Review Committee or CRC) having found that they meet all the criteria for listing. Chrysotile Asbestos is one of these substances. Because the decision to list a chemical to the Convention requires consensus by all parties, a small number of Parties who are big exporters of the mineral, like India, Russia, and Kazakhstan, have objected to and blocked consensus. While many developed countries have domestic bans on Chrysotile Asbestos and the capacity to regulate the trade of the mineral within their own jurisdictions, other countries do not. These states rely on the PIC Procedure and technical assistance provided by the Rotterdam Convention to prevent harmful exposure.

The asbestos lobby is very strong, including within the Rotterdam Convention itself. Over the past Triple COPs, a pro-asbestos lobby group disguised as a trade union had its own booth in the central hall of the conference center, and even organized a side event, where they argued that Chrysotile was not harmful.

At this COP, Nigeria, on behalf of the African Region, submitted a proposal to amend the listing procedure to the Rotterdam Convention that would remove the requirement of consensus, instead proposing a 3/4th majority vote. Many parties and civil society groups supported this proposal because it could revive the usefulness of the Convention that currently suffers from consensus paralysis. States such as India, Russia, and Sudan immediately opposed not only this particular amendment, but also any further discussion on the effectiveness of the Rotterdam Convention.

While parties continued to explore how to enhance the effectiveness of the Rotterdam Convention, Parties decided to close the informal group that was created to discuss the issue and exclude non-State stakeholders. As a result, no one from civil society was allowed to attend or observe the drafting process of a critical decision on the future of the Rotterdam Convention. Normally, civil society is allowed to attend such meetings, and while they are usually not allowed to speak, they are a watchdog and can provide assistance to delegates when necessary. At the end of the Rotterdam COP, a decision was adopted that extended the work to enhance the effectiveness of the Convention to an intersessional process, which also excludes civil society.

Despite an overwhelming majority of the parties to the Convention being in favor of listing Chrysotile Asbestos, the minority still has the power to keep the substance off the list. A revision of the decision making process for the listing of chemicals would go a long way in making the Rotterdam Convention more effective, but it would require an amendment to the Convention itself. Considering the current efforts of some states to frustrate this process by refusing to acknowledge the scientifically proven hazardous effects of Chrysotile Asbestos, and the exclusion of environmental NGOs and Trade Unions from the intersessional process, it remains to be seen if a functional and effective amendment will be drafted any time soon.

By Maria Veder, Geneva-based Legal Intern

Originally posted July 11, 2017