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Problems with Current U.S. Policy.

President Bush announced just prior to Earth Day 2001 that he intended to sign the POPs treaty in Stockholm and move quickly toward ratification. He pointed toward the bipartisan nature of this commitment, as it was finalizing a process overseen by his Democratic predecessor. Many U.S. NGOs welcomed the Bush administration's commitment to the treaty, and they are now challenging the State Department and the Senate to follow through with ratification of the Stockholm Convention and the companion Rotterdam Convention before the end of 2001.

This rapid schedule of ratification is both justifiable and unprecedented. International treaties have been known to languish for many years in the U.S. Senate and/or State Department--or somewhere in the policy nether-land between. Yet, in the case of the Stockholm Convention, the treaty has widespread support from the NGO community, industry, and governments around the world, and it regulates a set of chemicals that have been known for decades to be extremely dangerous.

Positions taken by the U.S. during treaty negotiations make rapid ratification even more urgent. In Stockholm, the U.S. successfully blocked a European proposal that would have initiated an interim process of reviewing new chemicals proposed for addition under the convention instead of waiting for ratification. The European plan would have established an international scientific review committee immediately, and the committee would then have made recommendations to the Conference of the Parties once the treaty comes into force. This model parallels the Interim Chemical Review Committee established upon signature of the Rotterdam Convention in 1998. The absence of such an interim process could delay for years the addition of new chemicals under the Stockholm Convention, and this makes the treaty's ratification all the more urgent.

Some of the chemicals likely to be considered for addition, such as the pesticides lindane and endosulfan, are still in widespread use in both industrialized and developing nations despite clear evidence of toxicity, persistence, and bioaccumulation. Elimination of these additional chemicals is likely to be much more controversial in the U.S. than an agreement to eliminate chemicals that have already been banned domestically for decades.

In the Rose Garden statement announcing his intent to sign and ratify the POPs treaty, President Bush noted that "these chemicals respect no boundaries and can harm Americans even when released abroad." This statement, while true, does not reflect the other side of the equation--the fact that continued use and release of persistent chemicals in the U.S. can and does harm citizens in other countries around the world.

The process of adding new chemicals under the Stockholm Convention will be informed by the precautionary principle, a concept that appears in several places in treaty text and is strongly supported by NGOs around the world. The principle of precaution recognizes that when there is evidence that a chemical threatens "serious or irreversible damage," action should be taken even in the absence of full scientific certainty. This principle recognizes the tremendous complexity of scientific research on the environmental and health impacts of synthetic chemicals, and it directs the international community to take protective action based on available knowledge.

Most European countries are well ahead of the U.S. in embracing the precautionary principle in both domestic and international policies. In negotiating the Stockholm Convention, the U.S. strenuously opposed precautionary language, while Europe strongly promoted it. This proved, along with the issue of financing, to be one of the most contentious issues in the final hours of treaty negotiations. On the domestic European front, Sweden recently adopted a comprehensive set of concrete national environmental quality objectives, many specifically based on the precautionary principle. In Germany, producers of new chemicals must go through a precautionary process of "alternatives assessment" to prove that other products less harmful to the environment could not serve the purpose of the product they are proposing to introduce.

During negotiation of the Rotterdam Convention, the U.S. clearly recognized the potential impact of the more precautionary and protective policies in Europe. Under the voluntary PIC procedure, a pesticide qualifies for the PIC list if it has been banned or severely restricted in any country. The alternative proposal, supported by the U.S. and eventually incorporated into the final Rotterdam Convention, stipulates that a pesticide must be banned in two countries in two separate regions to trigger the PIC procedure. The regional boundaries used for the treaty lump the U.S. and Canada in one region and the 43 countries of Europe in another. The U.S. position on this issue stemmed from concerns that bans in Europe, based on more precautionary policies, would lead the PIC process to potentially undermine markets for U.S.-based pesticide manufacturers.

Despite U.S. reluctance, the international community is moving toward precautionary approaches that will provide real protection for both human health and the environment. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson closed the Stockholm Convention signing ceremony by highlighting the critical importance of the precautionary principle: "Dangerous substances must be replaced by harmless ones step by step. If there is the least suspicion that new chemicals have dangerous characteristics, it is better to reject them."

Key Problems

* The U.S. has a history of slow ratification of international agreements.

* In Stockholm, the U.S. blocked the establishment of a scientific review committee, designed to begin reviewing additional chemicals to be eliminated under the Stockholm Convention.

* U.S. policies do not adequately reflect the precautionary principle, an approach to chemical policies prevalent in Europe and substantially more protective of human health and the environment than U.S. procedures.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:environmental policy
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:927
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