Cropper on Negotiating a Legally Binding Agreement on Mercury

Statement by UNEP Deputy Executive Director at the Opening of the First Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to Prepare a Global Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury

Stockholm, 7 June 2010- Thank you, Mr. Bakken. Honorable Minister, Dear Distinguished delegates, colleagues

On behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, I welcome you to the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury. I also extend to you the best wishes of Mr. Achim Steiner, our Executive Director, for the work of this Committee. He is disappointed that he is not able to be here with us this week, but he is attending the meeting on the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services in Busan, Kora. He sends his encouragement and support for the challenging work ahead.

This Committee is starting its work at an appropriate venue. And I thank the Government of Sweden and the Nordic Council of Ministers for hosting us here. Stockholm was also the venue for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, from 5 to 16 June 1972. 38 years ago, your Governments adopted a groundbreaking declaration voicing a common outlook and common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the conservation and enhancement of the human environment. That conference gave birth to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Many years and many meetings have passed since then and the global community has made much progress in addressing the global challenges posed by the use of hazardous chemicals in our society. International legal regimes have been developed to limit trade in unwanted chemicals and deal with persistent organic pollutants and hazardous wastes, and an overarching strategic approach to international chemicals management has been developed. But there is still a way to go before society achieves the objective it set itself in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, that objective being: "sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle so that, by 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment." The historic decision by the UNEP Governing Council last year (GC 25/5, 2009) to initiate international negotiations on global measures to reduce the risks to health and the environment from mercury pollution is another important step towards achieving that 2020, goal and sets the stage for lifting a major health threat that affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

The timing of this meeting is also appropriate. It falls immediately after World Environment Day, which has been commemorated on 5 June since 1972, and is one of the principal vehicles through which worldwide awareness of the environment is stimulated and political attention and action encouraged. So, I hope that the location and timing of this meeting will inspire this Committee to set itself the goal ? to as far as possible, eliminate man-made releases of mercury. This is an ambitious task, but we need to be ambitious if we are to achieve the longer term 2020 goal. The time for talking is over - the time for action on this pollutant is now.

UNEP has, during the last decade, provided a forum for an intense scientific and policy debate on how best to deal with mercury. Every Governing Council session since 2001 has debated the issue at length and a number of voluntary approaches and measures have been promoted through the UNEP Mercury Programme. These voluntary approaches have produced significant results around the world; however, no consensus could be reached on measures at the international level. However, this changed at the Governing Council session in 2009. We now have a clear understanding of and a consensus on the effects of mercury on human health and the environment, so we do not need to debate this further. And this understanding is not only based on laboratory results and scenario analysis ? unfortunately, we have real life incidents that clearly document the severe effects of mercury poisoning on humans and the environment.

More than forty years ago, after years of mercury containing effluents being discharged into the Bay of Minamata in Japan, the pollution started to affect the local people in the form of methylmercury poisoning, referred to as "Minamata disease", causing damage to the central nervous system in people eating large quantities of contaminated fish and shellfish from Minamata Bay. (1.) Children were born with a condition resembling cerebral palsy, caused by methylmercury poisoning of the fetus via the placenta when the mother consumed contaminated seafood during pregnancy. Many people lost their lives or suffered from physical deformities and have had to live with the physical and emotional pain of "Minamata Disease" since. The Minamata trauma opened the world's eyes to the problems associated with methylmercury and contributed to raising public awareness of the importance of environmental protection. (UNEP Global Mercury Assessment, 2002)

I am sure we all resolve that such incidents must never happen again. Yet, poisonings, albeit at lower levels, are still occurring in our society today. Within the artisanal and small scale mining sector, which involves at least 100 million people in over 55 developing countries who depend on this activity for their income, substantial amounts of mercury are used in mineral processing, often in highly unsafe and environmentally hazardous conditions. (UNEP Global Mercury Partnership). Health surveys across artisanal and small scale mining sites worldwide show high levels of mercury in miners and many experience uncontrollable tremors, which is a typical symptom of mercury-induced damage of the central nervous system. In many of the sites, the problems are not limited to the miners, but also affect their families and neighbouring communities. (UNEP Global Mercury Partnership) It is believed that artisanal and small scale miners produce 20-30% of the world's gold and with the recent surge in gold prices, it is likely that if unchecked, mercury use in small scale and artisanal gold mining may increase in the coming years. (UNEP Awareness Raising package, 2009) With the recent increase and value of gold on the world markets, we cannot ignore this threat.

Most of us will luckily never be at risk from such high levels of exposure to mercury. Despite this, many of us here will have mercury in our bodies. This mercury will have come from a variety of sources. It can be from products that we surround ourselves with in our daily life, such as dental amalagams, fluorescent lamps, batteries and thermometers. For most of these products, viable alternatives are readily available, and research is actively underway to develop non-mercury products for the remaining uses. Your decisions relating to phasing out of mercury in products will be one of the keys to successfully eliminating exposure to mercury in our daily lives. The mercury can also have been released from various industrial processes or from coal fired power stations. Because of the economic implications, these industrial activities constitute a greater challenge with regard to solutions, but are also key to reaching our goal.

The mercury in our blood can also have been released far, far from where we as individuals actually live our lives. Once it has been released, it circulates between air, water, soil and biota, moving throughout our world, disguising its original point of release. For most of us, the most important exposure to mercury is through our diet and fish consumption and there is thorough documentation in certain regions of the world that this is the case. We know that mercury levels in predatory species, such as sharks and marine mammals, are high. The impacts of increased mercury levels in these species are undergoing closer investigation, and there are reports of adverse effects such as decreased hunting and reproductive success.

There is now increasing focus on the consequences to our health and well-being of low level exposures to mercury over time. We know that the developing nervous system is a sensitive target and there are now increasing concerns about exposed children's ability to learn and process information. Our children deserve the best start in life and the chance to achieve their very best as adults ? we must take this responsibility seriously. However, the effects are not only limited to children, there is now emerging evidence of possible consequences to the cardiovascular system and immune and reproductive effects in adults, too.

Continuing to allow releases of mercury into the environment is only going to increase the effects on ecosystems and impacts on humans. Continuing to allow releases of mercury means that it will continue to build up in the environment and in people, and will have visible effects on the most sensitive members of the population. These effects would be more widespread and more common if the levels of mercury in the environment were to rise. The only way to limit these effects from mercury, and to ensure that mercury is not affecting environmental sustainability, is to decrease or eliminate releases of mercury from our activities. So let's move forward ? with the challenging ambition to as far as possible eliminate man-made releases of mercury.

The Governing Council has provided a detailed mandate and set a challenging time schedule for the work of this Committee. You are expected to draft and agree on a text of a new instrument on mercury at five sessions in just over two and a half years. This may appear to be daunting. But remember we have had the working group process for 10 years! And you can decide to do it in less than five sessions. The task before this Committee is considerable, but presents a terrific opportunity to make a real difference for the future. The task must be tackled with dedication and enthusiasm but also with flexibility, a willingness to consider openly all possibilities and a spirit of compromise, always keeping in mind what the stakes are and what it is that we are ultimately trying to achieve through this process.

There will be a number of challenging issues for you to resolve throughout the negotiations. For example, negotiators of some of the recent multilateral environmental agreements have struggled with the issue of compliance. I hope that this Committee will be able to reconcile the balance between Party obligations to be set out in the instrument and the support, both technical and financial, needed to successfully comply with the measures required. My colleagues tell me that many of the challenges posed by mercury are similar to those posed by ozone depleting substances; so I would hope that you might draw on the successful approaches that have been used within the Montreal Protocol, the implementation of which has resulted in significant reductions of levels of ozone depleting substances in the stratosphere.

I am very pleased to see the high level of interest in this meeting, and the number of delegates from all regions of the world who have travelled here to participate in these important discussions. I interpret this as a strong commitment to cooperate in jointly addressing the problem, rather than a concern to protect one's national or sectoral interests. I think this commitment has been demonstrated previously at the twenty fifth session of the Governing Council, which established this committee and set out the scope of its work, and I look forward to seeing such cooperation flow through this, and later, sessions. I hope the Committee draws on previous deliberation undertaken by many of you here ? there are many familiar faces here from the working group process which led to the establishment of these negotiations ? but also that you will not merely rely on what has gone before, but will be willing to consider new and innovative ways to tackle these important issues.

The working group process has also embraced the expertise of colleagues from many non-governmental organizations and it must be so encouraging to have so many of them present at the start of the negotiations.

The measures necessary to deal with mercury are many and varied ? some will require us to work together while others may be things that each of us needs to do individually. Some of us might need help. Others may be able to do it on their own, while still others may be able to assist those in need. We all need to stop being part of the problem, and start to be part of the solution. For a global problem like mercury, we need global contributions, with each country, group or organization playing its part.

When speaking of contributions, this also includes financial contributions to ensure the organization of the Committee sessions. And I thank those countries and organizations which have so contributed. Duplicating the successful approach that has been used in other fora, UNEP is proposing to establish a "Mercury Club" to recognize those Governments, organizations and partners who contribute financially or in other ways to ensuring the successful outcome of these negotiations. A short ceremony will be held at each negotiating session to distribute certificates and we hope that these gold, silver and bronze "medals" will be fought over as enthusiastically as the medals of the upcoming World Cup.

Both Mr. Steiner and I will follow the progress of your negotiations with interest, and pledge the full support of the UNEP Secretariat to this negotiating process. We look forward to welcoming the successful outcome of your work at the 27th session of the Governing Council in February 2013. Remember, that date has been set. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in your discussions. I urge you to make this new instrument on mercury a strong, effective agreement that finally "sunsets" mercury use in our society and leaves it where it belongs ? underground.

Thank you for your presence here today to begin this process to put another aspect of our planetary home and our human well being in order.

So let's just do it!


 

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