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International Legally Binding Instrument for the Application of the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Fourth session.

Rome, 21 October 1997 - This session of the intergovernmental committee has a vital mandate. This is not a bureaucratic exercise. The questions that you will consider deal directly with the future of life on Earth.

When we met at Rio more than five years ago, our commitment was to put in place a global legally binding instrument for the Prior Informed Consent Procedure by the year 2000. Since then, this intergovernmental committee has convened three times and deliberated on the articles of the text for a PIC convention. As a result, there has been a considerable narrowing down of the areas of divergence and agreement on some contentious issues.

As we enter the fourth and perhaps most crucial phase of the negotiation process, I am sure that the sense of cooperation and urgency that marked the earlier three sessions will be evident in this session too. I encourage you to take into account the decisions of the 18th Governing Council and the 107th session of the FAO Council which called for a draft instrument ready for adoption in 1997.

The ninth decade of the 20th century finds humankind confronted by an unyielding paradox. Many people have concluded that because we are at the pinnacle of technological achievement, with an amazing list of accomplishments to our credit, our scientific ability to control and shape the human environment is without limit.

Yet, even as our technological ability grows there is a steady and seemingly inexorable deterioration of the environment. The rising crescendo of discord created by unplanned and unforeseen technological by-products is beginning to penetrate the ears of even the most optimistic. Today's problems may be but the tip of an iceberg, that portion of vast ecological condition visible only in the daily reporting of TV, radio and newspapers.

Beneath the surface, yet to be discovered by most of our citizens, lies the mass of a still more serious problem - the potential destruction of the balanced ecosystem that sustains life on this planet. This threat, in all its aspects, to the quality and even the very existence of life constitutes the environmental crisis. And today, evidence for the environmental causes of such diseases as cancer is mounting. At each negotiating session I have recalled the nature of our chemical society and its unintended side effects. But one had to be a participant at the World Conference on Breast Cancer at Kingston, Canada in July to come face to face with the poignant human dimension of our rather passive academic descriptions.

During this conference, I listened to medical experts, scientists as well as survivors implicate unregulated use of synthetic chemicals, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides in the rising incidence of breast cancer. I listened to young women scarred for life by this malady. I listened to grandmothers who had bravely survived their ordeal. Yet, I also sensed a yearning for new hope among the survivors.

I felt it in their handshakes, I saw it in their faces, and I shall never forget the mothers who carried their children to these hearings. I shall always remember the doctors and scientists who believed that solutions can be found to mitigate this global problem.

During the conference, I committed, on behalf of UNEP, to assist in the development of a global programme of action on breast cancer. Today, I give voice to those one in eight women who will be stricken with breast cancer and I ask you to stand with them. On their behalf I encourage you to swiftly reach decisions to establish a global legally binding regime on the Prior Informed Consent procedure and to continue the effort to ensure an international regime for safe management of chemicals.

All of our current efforts to keep humanity alive primarily by the provision of medical care appear to be inadequate. Almost more than a matter of running as fast as we can to stand still, we may actually be losing ground in this race even though we are running faster than we ever ran before. Even now the story of the invisible undermining of our future by endocrine disruptors is being written. This class of chemicals poses a life altering challenge.

For a number of chemicals, this 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 facing today - breast cancer, impacts of endocrine and suppression of immune and reproductive function - 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".

At the 19th session of the 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 will take a lot of work to address this problem. Would the circumstances have been different if we had 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.

We as policy-makers cannot wait for scientific certainty to take actions that would slow the destructive effects of human activity. 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. We must not allow people to remain in harm's way.

To all of you who are now charged with drafting the convention, 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.

The voluntary Prior Informed Consent Procedure has so far served its stated purpose. It has promoted shared responsibilities between exporting and importing countries. It has protected human health from the harmful effects of certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides being traded internationally. It has enabled developing countries to make decisions on acceptable levels of risks from hazardous substances and disseminate their decisions regarding their imports as a preventive measure.

I am sure that the conclusion of the global PIC convention and its implementation will enhance chemical safety measures globally 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 is clear that we must conclude our negotiations on PIC rapidly. We must sustain the pace that we have set for ourselves and move forward to address other elements of the chemicals agenda.

I would like to emphasize once again on behalf of UNEP, our commitment to the PIC principle - both through a limited continuation of the voluntary PIC procedure and also through the upcoming convention. In the forthcoming special session of the UNEP Governing Council, we intend to seek an appropriate decision for this transition from the voluntary PIC under the London guidelines to a programme fully consistent with the new convention and the wishes of the parties.

When the present voluntary PIC procedure is superseded by the legally binding arrangement, you will be faced with the decision on necessary interim arrangements for an early and effective operation of the convention. I have noted with appreciation the desire of many members of the INC to continue the present secretariat arrangements jointly provided by UNEP and FAO, both in the interim period and later on a more permanent basis.

Before concluding, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the governments of the United States and Norway for their generosity in providing the necessary funding for this meeting. I would also like to thank our sister agency, FAO, for its efforts in hosting this meeting.

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.

I wish you a very productive meeting.

Statement by

Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Executive Director
United Nations Environment Programme

Friday 07 Nov 1997
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