Ninety-five countries agree on new international convention on dangerous chemicals and pesticides

After two years of negotiations, 95 countries have unanimously agreed on a legally binding convention on international trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and FAO announced the Convention at the conclusion of a six-day meeting in Brussels on 16 March.

A small-holder in Malawi sprays the family's coffee crop: the PIC Convention will protect small farmers from hazardous compounds

The Convention addresses the problem that chemicals and pesticides banned or severely restricted in industrialised countries are still exported to other countries, very often to the developing world. Each year large numbers of people are harmed or killed by toxic chemicals and pesticides. Many of these substances have caused devastating environmental problems.

The Convention requires that harmful pesticides and chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted in at least two countries shall not be exported unless explicitly agreed by the importing country (this is called Prior Informed Consent Procedure, PIC). The treaty is not a worldwide ban on these chemicals.

"The aim of the Convention is to enable importing countries to decide what chemicals they want to receive and to keep out the ones they cannot manage safely," said Maria de Azevedo Rodrigues, Chairperson of the Conference. "It is expected that trade can be better controlled and that the risks of these dangerous chemicals can be reduced to benefit people and the environment. "

The Convention already covers 22 pesticides and five industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted in a number of countries. More hazardous chemicals can be added to the PIC list. Developing countries can also propose the addition of severely hazardous pesticides formulations to this list if they have the potential to damage human health and the environment under their normal conditions of use.

The Convention will replace the present voluntary PIC procedure. Based on the experience of the voluntary PIC, FAO and UNEP estimate that probably more than 50 substances could enter the PIC list in future, subject to the decision of the Conference of Parties.

Countries that will ratify the treaty will be obliged to enforce the agreement at national level and to create enforcement mechanisms that will control commercial exports and exporters. Disputes between states regarding the implementation of the Convention will be settled either by arbitration or by the International Court of Justice.

The treaty enters into force upon ratification by 50 countries. A diplomatic conference will be held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in September to officially adopt and sign the new Convention.

According to UNEP, the Convention will help solve several major human health and environmental problems. There are large stockpiles of unwanted and obsolete pesticides and other chemicals in virtually every developing country. Each year, thousands of people are poisoned by severely hazardous pesticide formulations. And there are a number of highly toxic chemicals that persist in the environment, accumulate in wildlife and people, persist for long periods of time, and when environmentally released are spread all over the world. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a major problem. The Convention will help to manage these serious problems, UNEP said.

FAO warned that many pesticides that have been banned or whose use has been severely restricted in Europe and North America are still marketed and used in developing countries. Also, many old, often highly toxic, organophosphorus pesticide formulations continue to be used there because of their low price. Often, small farmers simply cannot handle such compounds, FAO warned. Protective clothing is often too expensive and, in many cases, cannot be used due to the climate in these countries. The Convention will be a powerful tool to limit access to such compounds. It will help to promote environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in agriculture.

The global market for pesticides continues to grow and is estimated at $30 billion for 1996. Companies based in Western Europe are currently the world's largest chemical producers. The fastest growing markets are in developing countries, particularly in Latin America and Asia. Africa is increasingly using pesticides on export crops.

1 April 1998

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