GENEVA (11 October 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste, Marc Pallemaerts, and the UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, welcomed today the signing of the world’s first global treaty to control mercury by some 140 countries and territories, at an international conference in Minamata City, Japan.
“We now urge governments worldwide to take another decisive step against a global scourge by ratifying the Minamata Convention on Mercury and making it legally binding,” they said. The convention must be ratified by 50 countries to come into effect, a process that could take three to four years, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The Convention is named after one of the largest mercury contaminations in history, which occurred as a result of a decade’s long mercury poisoning from spills from a company that dumped wastewater containing methyl-mercury near the fishing village of Minamata, and resulted in people developing a neurologically debilitating disease called Minamata disease.
Mercury poses a major public health threat in particular to children and women of child bearing age. It is found in everyday products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers, children’s shoes and light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams. Studies have shown that the use of mercury to extract gold in artisanal gold mining is the single worst polluter.
“Fighting this centuries’ old scourge requires global action due to its propensity to bio-accumulate in the food chain and its trans-boundary movement and impact,” Special Rapporteur Pallemaerts said. “Mercury is a persistent pollutant capable of sustained poisoning.”
“Governments’ global action is imperative to display firm commitment towards addressing these distressing health and environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of this toxic substance,” he underscored.
The Convention aims to reduce the impact of mercury on health and the environment and addresses the issues of mercury supply, storage and waste management, reducing emissions into the air, reducing its use in products, industrial processes and small scale mining, as well as delivering on technical assistance and finance.
According to UNEP, the lives of millions of people, from small-scale and artisanal gold miners and their families to pregnant mothers and their babies in the North and the South Arctic ecosystems and their fish eating and often indigenous communities, stand to benefit from the Minamata Convention of Mercury.
The experts greeted States’ recognition of the interconnection between the environment and human health, noting the explicit inclusion, for the first time in an environmental treaty, of an article focused on the health aspects of exposure to mercury. However, they noted with regret that the article only encourages, rather than requires, governments to adopt such fundamental measures as promoting the development and implementation of programs to protect populations at risk, and promoting science-based educational programs on occupational exposure.
“Nevertheless, the Convention represents an important step toward protecting the human rights to life and health from harm from mercury,” Independent Expert Knox said. He noted that the Convention also furthers the right to information about environmental threats, since it requires Parties to promote and facilitate information on mercury’s health and environmental effects.
“As governments implement the Convention, they should ensure that they take into account all relevant obligations under human rights law, including duties to allow full participation in environmental decision-making and to provide appropriate remedies for harm,” Mr. Knox stated.
The UN experts also regretted that trans-boundary obligations are not covered by the Convention, despite the known long-range impacts of mercury. “States can draw inspiration from the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States and their guidelines in addressing the intricate and convoluted challenges arising from cross-border pollution,” they noted.
“While we acknowledge the challenge of implementing provisions on artisanal gold mining due to the limited capacity of many States to regulate this informal sector, we nevertheless remain concerned that the Convention has no end-date for the phase-out of mercury in that sector, and that trade in mercury can be allowed within the regulations,” Mr. Pallemaerts and Mr. Knox said.
“It is therefore essential that capacity building, technical assistance and technology transfer aimed at assisting developing and Small Island States with implementation of the Convention should be more than lip service,” they concluded.
Marc Pallemaerts (Belgium) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. He is Professor of European and international environmental law at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. To visit the Special Rapporteur's UN website, click here.
John Knox was appointed as the Independent Expert on human rights and the environment in 2012 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. He is the Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. To visit the Independent Expert's UN website, click here.