Representatives from some 100 governments are expected to participate in the negotiating session being held from 25-29 January at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Governments are working to reach agreement on a treaty by the year 2000 in response to a mandate from the UNEP Governing Council.
"The time is right for accelerated global action to protect human health and the environment from these extraordinarily dangerous chemicals", said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "I am optimistic that by the year 2000 these talks will produce a legally binding regime that will prevent the terrible mistakes and tragedies of the past from ever happening again and help repair the damage already done".
POPs are highly toxic pollutants that harm human health and erode the ecological support system on which life depends. They pose a serious risk to public health and the environment because of a unique combination of factors. Once emitted, POPs remain in the environment for a very long time, accumulating in fatty tissue of living organisms. Through a process of biomagnification, concentrations of these chemicals in animals increase as they move up the food chain. In this way, they contaminate humans and other species like fish, birds, polar bears, and whales. POPs also travel long distances and across international borders to even the remotest regions, making them a global problem requiring a global solution. No country acting alone can solve the problem.
One of the concerns prompting international action is the growing number of obsolete and uncontrolled stockpiles of pesticides and toxic chemicals. The problem is particularly acute in developing countries. Dump sites and toxic drums from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s are now decaying, leaching chemicals into the soil and poisoning water resources, wildlife, and people.
These negotiations will build on the first round of talks, held in Montreal, Canada, from 29 June to 2 July 1998, where governments reached broad consensus on the way forward.
Twelve POPs are on the initial list for action under the treaty being drafted. They fall into three categories: pesticides, industrial chemicals, and unintended by-products of combustion and industrial processes. The 12 are: aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin, endrin, furans, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, PCBs, and toxaphene. Negotiators will be deciding on provisions to reduce emissions and to eliminate or phase out uses entirely.
Having the flexibility to add POPs to the future treaty is key to protect public health and the environment in the years ahead. As part of the negotiations, countries will be seeking to develop criteria and a procedure for identifying other POPs as candidates for inclusion in the upcoming treaty. A Criteria Expert Group established in Montreal met in Bangkok, Thailand in October 1998 where they reached early consensus on proposed scientific criteria for identifying other POPs for inclusion. The expert group plans to meet again later this year to continue its work, focusing next on the procedure for including additional POPs.
As a starting point for discussions overall, Governments are expected to use an outline of a treaty drafted by UNEP in response to a request from the meeting in Montreal. The current outline includes articles on measures to reduce and/or eliminate releases of POPs, national implementation plans, technical assistance to developing countries, and public awareness and education.
Financing intergovernmental meetings such as the current POPs session is a growing challenge. UNEP has responded by establishing the POPs Club. This creative financing mechanism seeks to promote contributions to a trust fund from a broad range of donors, including governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Donors receive recognition through certificates, with those providing the largest sums receiving silver and gold pins. The goal is to raise up to an additional US$3.5 million to ensure that the POPs convention is finalized by the 2000 deadline.
A total of five negotiating sessions are planned over the next two years, followed by a diplomatic conference hosted by Sweden for signing the treaty. It would then be open for ratification by countries.
The Nairobi meeting is formally known as the Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) for an International Legally Binding Instrument for Implementing International Action on Certain Persistent Organic Pollutants.
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UNEP News Release 1999/3