The Rotterdam Convention: Finding a Way Forward

You’re going to your sister’s house for a holiday dinner. Your son begins pestering you to bring his favorite pie (pecan), even though your niece is deathly allergic to nuts. Before bringing the potentially hazardous treat, you’ll probably check with your sister to see if it is ok, right?

That is how the Rotterdam Convention works. If one country wants to export a chemical to another, but the chemical is on a list adopted by the Convention (known as Annex III), the exporting country must first inform and get consent from the importing country (known as prior informed consent).

Seems pretty simple, right? But the problem arises when countries can’t agree about what chemicals are on the list.

Sure, both families may agree that a nut allergy is a serious thing. But gluten? What if your brother-in-law is convinced the whole gluten-intolerance thing is a hoax designed to bring down Big Flour, even though you break out in hives every time you eat his gluten-laden gravy?

Under the Rotterdam Convention, every country must agree before a chemical is listed in Annex III. If your family operated under these rules, you’d be skipping the gravy until your brother-in-law finally conceded that your hives are real (or until he left the family).

This has been the problem in the Rotterdam Convention since its beginning: States are unable to unanimously agree about which chemicals should be added to Annex III. This is true even though proposals for new listing have undergone thorough scientific assessment by a committee set up under the Convention just for this purpose.

To break the stalemate, parties to the convention have been discussing various options to change the way chemicals are listed in Annex III.

CIEL recently wrote a legal analysis identifying some of the options and assessing the consequences of each approach. Some of the main questions include:

  1. If chemicals are listed with less than unanimity, how could we structure the process to give unwilling countries a way to opt out of a particular listing?
  2. Would the ability to opt out complicate or weaken the Convention by creating different notice and consent obligations among different countries?

It isn’t obvious what the best approach is, or what the ramifications of changing the rules of the Convention would be. But one thing is certain: With a list that identifies just 51 of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market, many of which could be potentially harmful, and an ongoing stalemate over chemicals as toxic as chrysotile asbestos and paraquat, something must change. CIEL hopes its legal analysis will help guide both parties and observers in the difficult decisions ahead.

By Layla Hughes
Senior Attorney

Originally posted November 28, 2017