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Analysis

Basel Convention: Tenth Conference of Parties begins Monday

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Oct 16, 2011 | From the print edition

Meeting may end up defeating the very purpose of the international treaty on hazardous waste says SAVVY SOUMYA MISRA 

imageThe 10th Conference of Parties (CoP) to the Basel Convention, designed to reduce movement of hazardous waste between nations, meets in the city of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia in South America from October 17 to 21.

The theme of this CoP meeting is “prevention, minimization and recovery of wastes”. This conference is being looked at as an important one that will decide the future of the Basel Convention and make a concrete contribution to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to be held at Rio next year, called Rio+20 (it will be held 20 years after the first Earth Summit in 1992).

Ban Amendment yet to be enforced

The very theme of the CoP meet shows it is meant to protect businesses, says Gopal Krishna of research advocacy group ToxicsWatch Alliance. “This is going to be more like the burial of the Basel Convention unless the Ban Amendment, which bans exports of hazardous waste from rich countries to poor countries, is brought into force."

Krishna adds the theme suggests there will be efforts to explore ways in which the Basel Convention could be used to turn wastes into valuable resources, so as to create business and job opportunities, while protecting human health, livelihood, and the environment. This, he alleges, is being done under the influence of countries like the US, Germany, the UK, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan. More specifically, the meeting is being held at the behest of the US Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation, representing the interests of more than three million businesses, the International Chamber of Commerce, the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and the Bureau of International Recycling, the international trade federation representing the world’s recycling industry.

Basel Convention primer

The main principles of this UN treaty are:

  • Reducing trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes to a minimum, consistent with their environmentally sound management
  • Treating and disposing hazardous wastes as close as possible to their source of generation
  • Minimising hazardous waste generation at source
  • The Basel Convention covers hazardous wastes that are explosive, flammable, poisonous, infectious, corrosive, toxic or eco-toxic. Government of India’s current position is contrary to these principles and stands in sharp contrast with its position in 1992
 

The Ban Amendment, adopted in 1994, effectively bans, as of 1 January, 1998, all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries. This was in response to the 1989 Basel Convention, which despite being set up for regulating trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, was denounced as an instrument that served more to legitimise hazardous waste trade rather than prohibit it.

The Ban Amendment was the effort of African group of countries and other developing countries; countries like the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, Japan and the UK opposed it. The opponents of the ban argued, then, that the 1994 agreement could not become legally binding unless it became part of the Basel Convention through amendment. This was done in 1995, again despite massive opposition from the US, South Korea, Australia and Canada and a very vocal industry lobby.

But the Ban Amendment is yet to be brought into force. In order for the amendment to become the law, it needs to be ratified by 62 of the Basel Parties. Though India is a party to the Basel Convention, it is yet to ratify the Ban Amendment. Environmental groups have urged the Indian government to ratify the amendment at this CoP. What is worrying, though, is India's stand.

India allowed itself to become dumping ground

CoP 1: India's position at the first Basel Convention meeting had been that the developed countries should keep their own hazardous waste. The then head of the Indian delegation, A Bhattacharja, had said: "You industrial countries have been asking us to do many things for the global good—to stop cutting down our forests, to stop using your CFC's. Now we are asking you to do something for the global good: keep your own waste."

CoP 2, 1994: India stood firm. It advocated a ban on all hazardous waste exports from OECD countries to non-industrialized countries like India.

Cop 3, 1995: India was influenced by the US and Australia and revised its position. India announced that it was reconsidering its position on the Basel Ban and with it came the then union environment minister Kamal Nath's regressive statement: "We are against environmentally unfriendly recycling. We are not against the movement of waste, provided the recipient has adequate equipment, facility and the proper process to deal with it." This was a direct assault on the intent of the Basel Convention. It was the first nail in the coffin. Consequently, India did not ratify the Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, which could have stopped the import of hazardous waste and stopped India from becoming a leading dumping ground.

Ship-breaking rules flouted in India

India's changing stance in the international arena is reflected in the way it manages its ship-breaking industry. The Supreme Court, on October 14, 2003 had ordered that before a ship arrived for dismantling, it should have proper consent from concerned authorities, stating that it did not contain any hazardous waste or radioactive substances and also that the ship should be properly decontaminated by the ship owner prior to breaking.
 
The court had ruled that in the matter of ship- breaking activities, “India should participate in international meetings on ship breaking at the Level of the International Maritime Organization and the Basel Convention`s Technical Working Group with a clear mandate for the decontamination of ships of their hazardous substances such as asbestos, waste oil, gas and PCBs prior to exports to India for breaking. Participation should include (representatives) from Central and State Level.” This direction too has been ignored with impunity. Consequently, more than 120 ships have entered Indian waters on fake documents for dismantling at the Alang beach in Gujarat, causing the death of some 27 workers till September 2011.
 
In the 2003 order on hazardous waste, the Supreme Court had passed 29 specific directions with deadlines and had set up a 10 member Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to ensure compliance with its directions. "Not only has the government failed to comply with these directions, it has mutilated and disbanded the Monitoring Committee without court’s permission with impunity. Hazardous waste traders are indeed quite influential," says Krishna.
 
On October 12, eight years after the Supreme Court passed this landmark order on hazardous waste, it has asked the government submit an action taken report. The matter will be heard on December 2011.

 

CoP 9, 2008: The final push came at the conference at Bali. The then minister of state for environment Namo Narain Meena made a brief appearance at the meeting and said: "we see hazardous waste as recyclable material". "This was clearly under the influence of commerce ministry, which had adopted the policy of free trade in hazardous waste, unmindful of its environmental and human cost. A Raja took cue from Nath during his tenure as the environment minister," says Krishna.

"We appeal to the commerce, environment and steel ministries to resume the original stance and strongly oppose international waste trade and support a ban on toxic waste exports from the world's richest countries to less industrialized ones," says Krishna.
 
The Ban Amendment has not come into force despite the fact that 70 parties have ratified it. This is because the Basel Convention secretariat appears to have surrendered to the powerful hazardous waste traders. The Ban Amendment is now stuck due to some technical issues raised by Japan. The Basel Convention has been ratified by 175 countries.

Trade agreements circumvent Basel treaty

The US Government and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) have been instrumental in outwitting the UN ban on hazardous waste trade by entering bilateral Free Trade Agreements with countries. In one of its position paper on the Basel Convention, ICC has even called for the ban on hazardous waste to be stopped by the World Trade Organization because it is trade disruptive. This undermines the customary environmental law principles.
 
On the list of tasks expected to be carried out in this meeting is cooperation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the analysis on the application of the Basel Convention to wastes generated on board ships. There have been speculations surrounding the IMO replacing Basel Convention. But those who track the Basel Convention closely feel that it is regressive and that it has been condemned not just by environmental groups but also most ship-breaking industries across the world. IMO guidelines suggested that the ultimate responsibility of cleaning up a contaminated ship would lie on the communities of workers and their families working in the ship recycling facilities.  

 

AddThis

Environmental justice requires that a country should be exposed to approbation if its environmental performance is less stringent in relation to poor populations or developing countries. The export of hazardous waste for disposal in developing countries represents a failure of environmental justice on a global scale. It places a disproportionate burden on poor countries and threatens human health and the environment. The Basel Convention is an important first step in achieving environmental justice for developing countries. Admittedly, it falls short of this objective in a number of respects.

20 November 2011
Posted by
Cek Kanunu

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