The impacts of trade in chemicals on environmental sustainability and human well-being and development are key motivations for law development in this area. However, as the global trade regime strengthens it is uncertain whether such initiatives will come under threat from powerful trading blocs.

The Rotterdam Convention was adopted in 1998 in response to gaps within international law related to trade in hazardous chemicals. The Rotterdam Convention has 106 parties – including 37 African countries – and entered into force in 2004 (Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention 2006). The rapid growth in chemical production and trade during the last three decades and the associated risks posed by hazardous chemicals and pesticides was an important motivation. It was evident that many countries lacked the institutional and infrastructural framework to effectively monitor import and use of such substances. The Convention seeks to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts in such international trade in order to:

  • Protect human health and the environment from potential harm; and
  • Contribute to their environmentally-sound use of chemicals by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export.

Two other treaties deal specific with the problem of the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous waste. Africa’s Bamako Convention was adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1991 because the approach of the global Basel Convention was seen as not sufficiently strong to protect Africa from the threat of hazardous waste dumping. The Convention has 29 signatories, 21 of which have ratified it, and entered into force in 1998 (AU 2005). However, many more African countries are party to the more trade-friendly Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention has 168 parties, of which 46 are Africa countries; it entered into force in 1992 (Secretariat of the Basel Convention 2005). The focus of this convention is to control the movement of hazardous waste, taking into account social, technology and economic aspects, to ensure the environmentally-sound management and disposal and to prevent illegal waste traffic. It recognizes the importance of the reducing hazardous waste generation, the centrality of information for effective management and the obligation to inform the importing country in advance. In 2001, the Conference of the Parties undertook to enhance capacity in Africa to deal with problems associated with stockpiles (see Box 7).

Africa has three Basel Convention Training Centres. These centres were established under the Secretariat of the Basel Convention with the specific objective of enhancing capacity-building. However, in recent years their mandates have expanded to include other activities related to the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. The centres will support countries to synergize their chemical management-related activities at national level.


At a global level, there has been long-standing cooperation in the management of potentially harmful chemicals. Development of legislation often focuses on a specific problem that needs to be remedied – this can result in a poorly harmonized approach that fails to create a holistic framework for tackling the depth and breadth of the issue. The development of treaties for chemical management faces precisely this problem. There has been a steady increase in global support for the development of an approach to chemicals that takes into account issues of human well-being, environmental sustainability and development and that provides a comprehensive managerial framework.

Since 2003, international organizations, governments and other stakeholders have come together in a UNEPled initiative, SAICM. This initiative seeks to promote synergies and coordination among regulatory instruments and agencies; it includes an overarching strategy, a global plan of action and a high level declaration (UNEP 2005). The initiative was endorsed by the WSSD in Johannesburg in 2002. SAICM’s policy strategy establishes objectives related to risk reduction, knowledge and information, governance, capacity-building and technical cooperation and illegal international traffic, as well as underlying principles and financial and institutional arrangements. To this end it has adopted a Global Plan of Action, which sets out proposed “work areas and activities” for implementation of the Strategic Approach.