Delegates from more than 120 countries, including the Philippines, discussed actions to address sources of mercury pollution as they worked this week to negotiate a binding global mercury treaty. However, many issues must still be resolved before a comprehensive agreement protecting public health and truly honoring the proposal to name the treaty, the Minamata Convention, is assured.
The meeting held in Chiba, Japan from January 24-28 marked the second intergovernmental negotiating meeting in a series of five meetings that will culminate in a diplomatic conference in 2013 to sign the treaty.
Atty. Juan Miguel Cuna, Director of the Environmental Management Bureau under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources led the three-person government delegation to the meeting.
They were also joined by civil society observers from Ban Toxics, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Health Care Without Harm and the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology-Philippines.
“Timelines for the phase-out of mercury-using manufacturing processes, clean-up of contaminated sites, and how to address the major sources of mercury emissions, such as coal combustion and small scale gold mining, all remain unresolved at this point,” said Olga Speranskaya, co-chair of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) . “We hope the delegates make significant progress on these issues at the third negotiating session which will take place in Africa, in approximately eight months.”
Big developing countries rejected proposals to address coal combustion arguing that a goal to reduce them was not needed. A few hours of discussing small scale gold mining led to larger questions about how the treaty would address both mercury and the larger livelihood and poverty issues.
The Minamata tragedy loomed over the discussions as representatives from 13 victims’ groups insisted that the unresolved disaster must be authentically addressed before the treaty could take the Minamata name in 2013.
Minamata disease sufferer, Shinobu Sakamoto, presented a statement from 13 Minamata victims and supporter groups directly to the Vice Minister of the Japanese Ministry of Environment. More than 72 public interest civil society organizations from 42 countries supported the Minamata groups’ demands in the Honoring Minamata statement. Many participants pinned orange and blue ribbons to their clothing as reminders of the tragedy.
“This week the global community made a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the victims of Minamata through INC2 mercury discussions. Symbolic gestures can only go so far. Real, immediate, and effective global actions that stop mercury pollution are the only actions that bring honor and justice to Minamata and its memory,” said Takeshi Yasuma of Citizens Against Chemicals Pollution (CACP-Japan).
“Japan knows more than any country in the world the terrible cost to life and the environment that mercury causes because of Minamata,” said Atty. Richard Gutierrez of Ban Toxics. “Only a ban of Japanese mercury export can begin to give honor to Minamata’s legacy.”
Several negotiation topics related directly to the Minamata tragedy which was caused by a manufacturing process that produced a contaminated site in the Minamata Bay and contaminated fish. The specific process that caused the disaster (mercury-catalyzed acetaldehyde production) was left out of the list of processes that the treaty should address.
More importantly, delegates did not agree to establish any global timeline for the phase-out of any mercury-using manufacturing processes. Delegates also disagreed on measures to address contaminated sites, with many donor countries proposing only voluntary action to identify and clean-up sites which would likely disqualify the activity from the treaty financial mechanism.
Many governments repeatedly used the word “flexibility” during the week-long negotiating meeting to describe their approach to actually taking action on mercury. NGOs hope that “flexibility” – a term used by many delegates during the week-long meeting – is not simply an excuse for half-hearted measures that fail to protect human health and the environment from the serious harms of mercury.
“The mercury treaty negotiation needs government champions,” said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, IPEN co-chair. “We are looking for an ambitious approach to mercury pollution and a strong treaty whose actions will once again make fish safe to eat.”
“Governments need to step up and take more leadership in this debate”, stated Dr. Linda E. Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Zero Mercury Working Group. “Mercury is a problem within our grasp to solve, but it will take political will and focus to resolve it.”
Looking forward, public interest NGOs urge delegates to effectively address all mercury emissions, not just emissions to air, and to take authentic actions to resolve the ongoing Minamata tragedy. NGOs remained committed to a comprehensive treaty that addresses all human sources of mercury so that fish are once again safe to eat.