Mercury rising - from beyond the cradle and the grave- Remarks by UNEP Deputy Executive Director, Ibrahim Thiaw, at the Minamata Convention Meeting Thu, Mar 10, 2016

First of all, on behalf of everybody at the United Nations Environment Programme I would like to extend our sincere thanks to His Majesty King Abdullah II, His Excellency Taher Shakhashir and to the people of Jordan for their unstinting support in enabling this vital gathering to take place in such a significant location - at the lowest point on Earth. My thanks also to His Excellency Fernando Lugris and the INC Bureau, both for their hard work in putting together this conference and for giving me this opportunity to say a few words.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I will keep my remarks short, but I wanted to acknowledge the importance of this occasion. It is almost exactly 60 years since two young sisters, aged just five and two, became the first of almost 20,000 people from an apparently idyllic stretch of the Japanese coastline to be officially diagnosed with a painful, irreversible and stigmatized illness. It took decades for the world to understand the science of mercury poisoning and its implications for the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the economies and ecosystems on which we depend and for the generations that will follow our children and theirs.

Yet, still other small children and many, way too many adults around the world continue to suffer. From the Philippines to Indonesia, from Peru to Ecuador and from Ghana to Zimbabwe, small scale and artisanal gold miners account for over a third of mercury emissions, handling and inhaling it all day, every day. As far afield as Europe, Australia, China and the US, activities as common as construction, cremation or coal burning release mercury into communities oblivious to either its presence or its potency. However, whether the exposure is through lack of choice and lack of awareness, the damage is the same.

Unfortunately six decades from Minamata, our better knowledge still has dangerous gaps. Estimates put manmade mercury emissions at around 2,000 tonnes, but with a margin of error of more than double that amount - ranging anywhere from 1,000 - 4,000 tonnes. When basic activities like making concrete and burning coal account for a third of mercury emissions, that's a significant issue to worry about and when mercury poisoning has such geographical and generational reach, addressing that gap must be part of a systematic lifecycle approach for both developed and developing countries.

That approach has to include a concerted public-private effort to control, phase out and ban the use or trade of mercury and its compounds; to ensure sound waste management and treatment of contaminated sites; and to share the experience and technology to make all of this possible.

Pollutants kill nine million people a year and, as with mercury, many of them spread, magnify and damage throughout their long lives. That creeping shadow has implications for health, poverty, production, consumption, security and economy growth that explain why the environment, chemicals, pollution and waste are integral to virtually all 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and why these issues cannot be tackled in isolation in any single country, region or stakeholder. His Majesty King Abdullah summed it up beautifully, when he said that: "Sustainable development is a virtuous cycle: it both creates, and benefits from, economic stability and growth. Starting the cycle requires global cooperation, and often, tough choices."

For chemicals, the scale of the tough choices and the options to address them are reflected in the work of more than 100 partners to the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership and the scope and ambition of the Minamata Convention. Japan is the latest welcome addition to the list of 23 countries that have already ratified the Convention, while many others are working hard to follow suit. But we need to build on this momentum if we are to ensure that the Convention can enter into force this year, letting us refocus our energy on its implementation. The 2030 Agenda will stand or fall on our ability to achieve this as part of wider, multilateral chemical and waste management efforts like the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). Because, ultimately, these are not about the paper they are written on. They are there to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. After all - did you ever hear a wealthy person volunteer to work down a mine, drink contaminated water or risk the health and security of their child?

The good news is that we have examples to learn from, such as the Montreal Protocol. Tackling the ozone challenge has been an extraordinary international alignment of science, policy and action. Millions of people have been spared of skin cancer or cataracts, while averting the equivalent of 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide and putting the ozone layer on the path to recovery by mid-century. So it is possible. We have success stories.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us put a human face to our meeting today. Let us pause and reflect on the conditions of those nine million people hit by pollution: they are why the next six days will be so hard. Because they are not statistics - they are family and friends. They are here, listening to us, in our negotiation rooms. We can chose to either see them or ignore them. Each one of you represents each one of them, through a government with specific priorities, capacities and cultures. On behalf of those nine million people, you will have to agree technicalities, finances and governance and you will probably have to do it against the backdrop of Freddie Mercury and heavy metal motivation that our friend Fernando has made his own special brand of diplomacy!

President Obama said it was a "Good day" when the United States announced mercury measures in 2013, building on 20 years of effort across the political spectrum, just three weeks after becoming the first country to ratify the Minamata Convention. So please, if scale of the work ahead this week seems tough, remember that the world desperately needs another 'good day' to get mercury under control. You are the only ones who can deliver it. Because your work here is not just about securing a global treaty to pave the way to more international meetings, it is about delivering meaningful impact on the ground and solving a lethal, often invisible, issue that affects people from before they are born until long after they are gone. Think about this: mercury is rising from beyond the cradle and the grave. How long can we keep turning our back?

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