Press releases

Wednesday 28 May 1997

Third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Legally Binding Instrument on Prior Informed Consent

Geneva, 26 May 1997 - Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme

I want to welcome all of you to the 3rd session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Legally Binding Instrument on Prior Informed Consent.

Once again, Geneva, a city which symbolizes and nurtures so much of humanity's aspirations for peace and international brotherhood and sisterhood, has provided the focal point for an undertaking of global significance.

We are grateful to the Swiss Government for its generosity in providing the necessary financial support to enable this meeting to take place and for its faith in us.

I have a strong sense that in holding this meeting in Geneva, we are among kindred spirits and friends. This atmosphere is important to us because our meetings this week are the most crucial in the work of the Committee to date.

During the past 14 months, we have been engaged in a major effort at reaching an agreement on a legally binding instrument on prior informed consent. Our meeting this week will mark the peak of this phase of our work.

I doubt there has ever been a time during the last thirty years, when the alarming news about life-threatening effects of chemicals was so frequent.

Today, we all know about the effects of the "wonder chemicals" - the chlorofluorocarbons - discovered in the 1930s which have now been indicted as the main culprits in the depletion of the ozone layer. We have seen concern about the effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants grow. Simultaneously, there is a growing body of evidence that a number of synthetic chemicals disrupt the endocrine system, adversely effecting wildlife and possibly people as well.

As is true of so many other technological creations of human ingenuity, the visible effects of chemicals cloaked invisible threats. It is true that our world cannot do without science and technology. But it is also true that when technology can put in jeopardy the life on earth and oceans, when it threatens the atmospheric mantle that surrounds the planet, when it unleashes forces that can sicken and kill humans and other beings, the stakes are too high.

However skilful may be our technologies, however innovative may be the responses of science, and however disposed governments may be to apply them, we shall obtain complete and decisive success over the long run only if everyone on this planet is profoundly convinced that to work for the preservation of his own environment is also to accomplish a duty in behalf of generations to come.

Policy makers cannot wait for scientific certainty to take actions that would slow the destructive effects of human activity. Within scientific, political and environmental community, it is increasingly recognized that the magnitude of dangers to humanity and its habitat from eroding life-support systems is far too great to wait for scientific certitude and consensus before acting to address them.

For a number of these ubiquitous chemicals, there is an inevitable feeling that we should have reacted in a timely and coherent fashion. Indeed, had we been able to respond more promptly, many of the problems that we are now facing might have been easier and quicker to remedy.

One strategy that would have helped in enhancing our capability to handle these chemicals could have been the establishment of a safety net -- some form of "first line of defence". In building this first line of defence, national governments have a prime role to play. It is the national governments that identify chemical problems either through research programmes that may show previously unknown degree or type of toxicity, or through in- depth assessments of the full weight of evidence of chemical risk, by reports of poisoning or other incidents or through a variety of sensing mechanisms.

It is then the task of these governments to relate these threats to the health of their people and their environments and address them by framing pesticides and toxic chemicals legislative and regulatory programmes.

Obviously these countries can then take the needed actions to keep toxic chemicals at bay by preventing domestic production or import, by phasing out problematic uses and by taking other steps.

The success of this strategy, however, depends on a particular government possessing the necessary resources - human, legal and technological - to address pesticides and chemicals issues fully.

But these conditions are rarely met in most countries. And they face formidable obstacles in formulating and implementing such a strategy. The most compelling ones are the lack of financial, technological and human resources. Another obstacle is the lack of legislative and institutional capacity.

A rational model of a truly global chemical safety assumes a safety net that covers all nations and not just a few, complete and reliable information, agreement on goals and assistance to countries in building and strengthening their pesticides and chemical management infrastructures. The other element of this model is the expansion of the safety net through international law to cover those areas that cannot be managed by international programmes alone.

Another key issue is the linkage to international trade rules. Environmental protection and trade liberalization can be mutually supportive.

Agreements on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards and on Technical Barriers to trade directly address environmental, health and safety regulations. The common objectives of these agreements is to minimize the extent to which standards and regulations have negative trade effects or act as disguised barriers to trade while still permitting members to adopt and maintain standards that are necessary for the protection of human, plant and animal life and health.

For some pesticides and chemicals in international trade, enough has been learned about their dangers to human health and the environment to motivate governments to ban or severely restrict them. But for some other pesticides which have a very high acute toxicity it may be very difficult, or even almost impossible for some countries to use them safely. These substances clearly represent the types of pesticides and chemicals where countries should consider the data and understand the risks under their own national circumstances. If these countries believe that the pesticides and chemicals present too great a risk to human health and the environment in their countries, some mechanism should be available to them to prevent the substances from coming in to their countries.

Let us not forget that a number of developing countries are not only importing but are also producing chemicals for domestic use and export. In fact international trade in chemicals, in particular in chemicals that are banned or severely restricted in developed countries, has increased between the developing countries.

It will be necessary to take into account such changing patterns of trade, and address both North-South and South-South trade in banned or severely restricted chemicals while formulating our first line of defence.

This is what the Prior Informed Consent procedure in nearly seven years of its existence has stood for. The system has provided a global notification of banned or severely restricted chemicals. It has given countries the opportunity to decide whether they wish to accept imports and then calls on exporting countries not to export these chemicals against the wishes of importing countries.

I can say with some pride that in spite of some difficulties, the voluntary Prior Informed Consent procedure has served its stated purpose. It has promoted shared responsibilities between exporting and importing countries. And in doing so, it has protected human health from the harmful effects of certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides being traded internationally. The PIC has also provided the developing countries, in particular, with a tool to enable them to make decisions on acceptable levels of risks from hazardous substances and disseminate their decisions regarding their imports as a preventive measure.

At the 19th session of UNEP's Governing Council, it was agreed that UNEP should commence negotiations on a Convention to address the risks emanating from the use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

These chemicals have been produced or generated as by-products and released into the environment over many years. Now it has become clear that they constitute a major global health and environmental hazard.

It is apparent to all of us that the magnitude of the POPs problem is enormous. Even now there are thousands of tonnes of PCBs in waste dumps and leaking in transformers. In fact, there are residues of toxic POPs pesticides that are contaminating virtually every living organism.

It will take a lot of work to address this problem.

At this stage, I cannot help reflect whether the circumstances could have been different if we had a safety net -like the PIC - several decades ago.

If the global community were equipped with the knowledge about the risks of these chemicals, I believe that the POPs problem would not have grown to the crisis proportions, it has now reached.

It is important to note that some of these POPs were the first ones to be included in the voluntary PIC procedure. I believe that the voluntary PIC procedure has had an effect in keeping the POPs problem from growing worse.

And I am convinced that a strengthened, legally binding PIC procedure system will help further in strengthening our first line of defence against the deleterious effects of these chemicals.

The conclusion of a global PIC convention and its implementation will enhance chemical safety measures in all countries by controlling international trade in hazardous chemicals through the PIC procedure. It will become an instrument for enhancing the ability of those countries that presently do not have adequate chemical management schemes to make decisions regarding imports of chemicals. It will also be a starting point for governments to collectively solve problems associated with hazardous chemicals in international trade.

Our highest hopes are focussed on the deliberations of this meeting. The conclusion of a PIC convention and its implementation will enhance chemical safety measures in all countries by controlling international trade in hazardous chemicals through the PIC procedure. It will become an instrument for enhancing the ability of those countries that presently do not have adequate chemical management schemes to make decisions regarding imports of chemicals. It will also be a starting point for governments to collectively solve problems associated with hazardous chemicals in international trade.

The PIC procedure is about sustainability. It implies an innovative approach to environmental protection - one that provides safeguards against harmful effects while at the same time broadening our understanding. It is an enabling mechanism that balances the risks with the advantages of utilizing chemicals. It is about making correct choices. It shows that economic development and care for the environment are compatible, interdependent and necessary. It demonstrates that high productivity, modern technology and economic development can co-exist with a healthy environment.

To all of you who are now charged with drafting a convention that aims to protect human health and the environment from potential harm from certain chemicals in international trade, I strongly urge that you keep the precautionary principle in mind in order that the PIC convention becomes a significant advancement in the protection of human health and the environment.

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell,
Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme
Madame Chairperson, Director Roche, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee
for a Legally Binding Instrument on Prior Informed Consent
Geneva, 26 May 1997

Wednesday 28 May 1997
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