PANNA: New Environmental Agreement Undermined by U.S.



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New Environmental Agreement Undermined by U.S.
February 14, 2006

Government and civil society negotiators adopted a new international agreement to protect the public and the environment from the hazards of chemicals last week in Dubai. While not legally binding, the Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management (SAICM) agreement marks significant global progress on advancing commitments, broad strategies, and tools to improve the regulation of chemicals. The United States, however, led the charge to weaken the pact by lobbying for a narrower scope, less emphasis on “precaution” in regulatory policy, and uncertain commitment to finance its long-term implementation.

During the negotiations, U.S. government negotiators clearly promoted chemical industry interests at the expense of public health and environment. Amid the commotion of last-minute deal making, Charlie Auer, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Director of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, strode across the conference hall to consult with chemical industry representatives. “Just wanted to make sure you guys didn’t see a problem,” he remarked.

“As public interest NGO participants from the U.S., we worked hard to have a modicum of influence on our government. Meanwhile, US negotiators worked with the chemical industry as if they were on the same team,” observed Skip Spitzer of Pesticide Action Network North America, who participated in the multi-stakeholder negotiation process.

The U.S. played a strong hand even before the opening of the Dubai negotiating session. The rules for all prior sessions required stakeholders to make every effort to reach consensus, while also providing clear voting procedures to resolve impasses. Fearing the prospect of being overruled by a majority vote, the U.S. brokered a preemptive deal to require decision-making by consensus for the meeting, allowing U.S. negotiators to block agreement with impunity. “Rules of procedure can…give undue advantage to the most powerful, suppressing the truth, obstructing progress and showing no sensitivity to the cries of the poor and the powerless,” declared Dr. Romeo Quijano of the International POPs Elimination Network and Pesticide Action Network Philippines.

One of the most important elements of SAICM commits governments to take into account the precautionary principle when regulating chemicals. Precaution means that governments should act proactively to protect public health and the environment from risky substances, even if scientific research has not fully established that they are harmful. The precautionary principle promotes substitution of the most hazardous chemicals with less toxic alternatives, and has also been widely used in arguments against the use and spread of genetically modified organisms. At stake was whether SAICM would entail a stronger standard of precaution than as established in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

While the U.S. sought to limit the definition of precaution to that set out in the Rio Declaration, the European Union and others worked to strengthen the concept. This struggle reflects differences likely to manifest in a trade dispute before the World Trade Organization (WTO). The European Union has been taking the lead in developing policies based on the precautionary principle through its “Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals” regulatory process, known as REACH. According to a recent congressional report, the Bush administration has vigorously lobbied European officials to weaken REACH at the behest of the U.S. chemical industry, asserting that it disrupts global trade.

Stronger SAICM language on precaution might help defend REACH from U.S. challenges in the WTO. While the U.S. was successful in limiting the scope of precaution in Dubai, the reiteration of precaution as an essential element in the SAICM agreement strengthens its standing internationally.

U.S. negotiators were also successful in largely exempting food products and pharmaceuticals from SAICM, even though the agreement was originally conceptualized as covering “chemicals throughout their lifecycles, including in products.” Countries such as the United States that already regulate food and pharmaceuticals can decide to treat them as outside the scope of the SAICM agreement.

With one hour remaining before the close of negotiations, many countries of the global south, especially Latin American nations, blocked consensus on the entire agreement over lack of funding for its implementation. Some richer countries, led by the U.S., Australia, Japan and others, resisted language committing them to additional financial contributions. The impasse was resolved by reverting to previously agreed text, although the adequacy of financing to implement SAICM remains unclear.

“We are of course disappointed by the damage to SAICM caused by the United States and others,” concluded Spitzer. “Yet SAICM remains a very important statement of global commitment to chemical safety. We now expect that those who support meaningful reform will use SAICM to raise awareness, justify change and apply pressure to those dragging their feet while the world continues to be poisoned.”

DiGangi, Joseph. 2004. “The Precautionary Principle: REACH and the Long Arm of the Chemical Industry.” Multinational Monitor 25:9.

Earth Negotiations Bulletin. 2006. “Summary of the International Conference on Chemicals Management.”

Quijano, Romeo. 2006. “Opening statement at the ICCM, Dubai, February 4, 2006.”

United Nations Environment Program. 1992. “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.”
Contact: PANNA

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