ICTSD: Delegates representing 140 countries have clinched a deal to establish an international binding treaty to curb mercury pollution. The 19 January deal is the result of four years of negotiations on the subject. The Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after the Japanese town whose residents suffered the consequences of mercury poisoning some 50 years ago – will open for signature in October at a diplomatic conference in Minamata itself.
The convention will enter into force once it has been ratified by at least 50 countries, a process that could take three to four years.
“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva — in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said following the fifth and final round of negotiations. “I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible.”
Franz Perrez, head of the Swiss negotiating delegation in Geneva, said the adoption of the Convention “demonstrates the vitality of the UN system and the willingness of states to work together to find solutions to global problems.”
Mercury is a naturally-occurring chemical; however, there is no level of exposure considered safe for humans. There are two principle types of mercury exposure, each presenting a different level of danger to humans: elemental mercury and methylmecury. Other less common forms of exposure exist, some much more dangerous while other less so.
Exposure to elemental mercury, the form found in thermometers, is not as dangerous when it is handled; the danger becomes present when its fumes are inhaled. This form of mercury can lead to neurological damage and even to changes in bone marrow which would eventually lead to problems in blood cell production, infertility, and heart rhythm. Methylmecury, however, is a type of organic mercury that builds up in fish and shellfish. Overexposure to this form through the consumption of seafood is especially dangerous to a developing foetus, causing neurological problems and deformities. Adults can also be affected with these disorders but require a higher level of exposure.
While mercury is commonly found in a number of products such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs, it is also released through a number of processes, including mining and cement and coal-fired power industries.
The Minamata convention seeks to curb mercury by targeting several products for phase-out by 2020. Those products include mercury thermometers, certain blood pressure measuring devices, most batteries, certain types of electric switches, some fluorescent lamps, and certain soaps and cosmetics. Exceptions have been allowed for some medical products for which a mercury-free alternative does not exist.
Trade issues “complicated”
Trade issues relating to mercury are discussed in the text, particularly in articles 3 and 9. According to sources close to the negotiations, trade was one of the difficult issues to find common ground. As a result, trade is one of the more complicated aspects of the agreement, with system of prior informed consent being the agreed system of control, rather than a ban.
One issue that received much discussion was how to treat trade in mercury products between parties and non-parties to the treaty. While some argued that non-parties should be treated the same, others suggested that they should be treated more harshly as an incentive to join. In the end, the treaty effectively treats trade between party members and non-party members equally, but according to one delegate, protections for imports from non-parties are lacking somewhat.
Some language on trade is purposefully vague and open for renegotiation, which some observers say was necessary to allow all parties to feel “comfortable” with the final text. Various issues will be further elaborated in the future and are subject to review.
Negotiating the agreement
Negotiators had agreed during the 25th Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GMEF), held in February 2009, to complete a legally binding instrument by February 2013. During the 13-19 January negotiations, delegates faced several decisions regarding the scope and content of the agreement. One of the most important issues to be resolved was whether the provisions of the agreement would have a “positive list” (listing only prohibited uses) or a “negative list” (banning all uses and listing exceptions to the ban). In the end, delegates agreed to use the positive list approach with regard to processes, and a hybrid approach with regard to products. The treaty therefore commits parties to a phase-out for a number of products that use mercury by 2020.
Delegates discovered that the phase-out approach could not be applied uniformly because banning all products that use mercury could cause immediate harm to the public. For example, some NGOs were in favour of banning thimerosal, which eliminates the need for refrigeration when used in vaccines. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) argued that its use was safe and essential to global vaccination campaigns. Similarly, the use of dental amalgams was also debated. Some in the dental community claimed that the mercury found in the amalgams posed a risk to both the patient and dentist, while others argued that public health benefits were too great to have them be banned.
The balance that was agreed to by the delegates was to provide steps for parties to phase-down the use of amalgams, rather than banning them altogether.
While many welcomed the treaty, some groups felt that the language used was too vague on some industries, such as gold mining and coal-fired plants, the largest mercury sources. According to Article 9 of the treaty, each country that has Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) within its territory shall take steps to reduce and where feasible eliminate the use of mercury. In addition, each party shall notify the Secretariat if at any time ASGM processing “is more than insignificant,” and if it determines it to be so, they must develop a National Action Plan. Critics argue that this language leaves the door open to proceed with business as usual.
Aside from the vague language, many of the necessary actions will be taken during extensive phase-out periods, and not all action are mandatory. Additionally, some have argued that twenty years is too long of a period. Some groups also took issue with national governments, which they argue have not done enough to regulate the dangerous metal.
“This is the first time that an environmental treaty contains explicit action on prevention and treatment of mercury poisoning,” said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Although this treaty is a historic development, governments could and should have done more to make health strategies mandatory.”
In addition, some delegates – recalling the discussions that preceded UNEP’s Governing Council that led to the INC’s mandate – hoped that this treaty could lead to more agreements addressing other heavy metals.
ICTSD Reporting: “U.N. clinches global deal on cutting mercury emissions,” REUTERS, 21 January 2013; “Groundbreaking Mercury Treaty Adopted by 140 Countries,” BUSINESS INSIDER, 20 January 2013; “140 countries agree mercury treaty,” THE GUARDIAN, 19 January 2013; “What is mercury poisoning?” SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, 19 December 2008; “Summary of the Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to Prepare a Global Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury: 13-19 January 2013″, IISD, 21 January 2013.
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