The Rotterdam Convention is an international treaty that aims to protect people from hazardous substances that are exported from other nations.
The Rotterdam Convention is a legally binding international treaty that empowers countries to make informed choices about whether to allow imports of chemicals and pesticides that pose threats to the environment or human health.
It was created because some countries lack the infrastructure and technical capacity to monitor the import and use of hazardous chemicals.
There were also growing concerns that companies were using developing countries as ‘dumping grounds’ for hazardous substances that were banned or otherwise controlled elsewhere.
The treaty enables importing countries to either give their prior informed consent (PIC) to accept hazardous chemicals, or to choose instead to refuse imports of chemicals they do not want or cannot manage safely.
The convention covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that parties to the convention have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons, and which parties have nominated for inclusion.
These substances are listed in Annex III of the convention,which currently lists 40 chemicals, including 25 pesticides.
Each party to the convention receives a ‘decision guidance document’ (DGD) that describes each listed chemical, the risks involved with its use, and any bans in place.
Parties then have nine months to decide whether to permanently ban, to allow imports and use of the chemical, or to make an interim decision.
Parties then inform the PIC secretariat which notifies every other party’s designated national authority. To be ‘trade neutral’, a party cannot ban imports of a chemical that it continues to produce domestically.
The responsibility for upholding any import ban under the Rotterdam Convention lies with the exporting nations.
The convention also requires each party let others know if it bans or severely restricts a chemical domestically. If such a party continues to export a newly-controlled chemical it must notify all importing parties.
New chemicals can only be added to the list controlled by the convention if countries in two different regions nominate them to the Chemical Review Committee’s annual meeting, and if all parties later agree to the listing at a Conference of Parties, which takes place every two years.
The treaty is one of many Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). Its full title is the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. It entered into force on 24 February 2004.
Journalists should be aware of the vested interests that can dictate decisions made under the Rotterdam Convention. As a chemical can only be listed by consensus, countries that are major producers can be reluctant to allow the listing, even if the chemical is banned at home.
Chemical companies are also involved in the Rotterdam Convention processes, lobbying for looser controls and publishing research that supports their case.
Journalists should assess any studies about chemicals proposed for inclusion in the convention very carefully, to identify how the research was funded and to get an independent scientific opinion on its findings.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin provides daily reports during each Conference of Parties to the Rotterdam Convention and is a good source of neutral information on each negotiating session.
The bulletin is produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which also runs Chemicals-L, an email-based mailing list for news and announcements about chemical policy, which is another good source for journalists.
Journalists in developing nations can find stories by visiting small-scale farmers and seeing if they are using any pesticides that are covered by the Rotterdam Convention, and which their country has chosen not to import.
Journalists in industrialised nations can focus on chemicals that are banned at home but still exported to less developed nations.
Civil society organisations that take a special interest in the Rotterdam Convention include Pesticide Action Network International and the Rotterdam Convention Alliance.
CASE STUDIES – Asbestos and endosulfan
Two of the most contentious chemicals that have been proposed for inclusion in the Rotterdam Convention are the pesticide endosulfan and a form of asbestos called chrysotile.
Both are widely banned around the world because of concerns about serious health problems in people who are exposed to them. Both were proposed for inclusion in the Rotterdam Convention some years ago.
In both cases, however, countries that produce the chemicals have blocked their inclusion in Annex III.
The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat accuses Canada, India and Ukraine of blocking the addition of chyrsolite. Each of these countries is a major producer.
The Environmental Justice Foundation has been campaigning for years for the inclusion of endosulfan. The pesticide is banned in 63 countries but India, a major producer, blocks its listing under the Rotterdam Convention.
Rotterdam Convention – official website
Environmental Justice Foundation report – End of the Road for Endosulfan
The Chemical Conventions Handbook – Rotterdam Convention
UNEP – A guide to Cooperation on the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions [PDF]
Protecting human health and the environment: A Guide to the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous chemicals and pesticides. [PDF]