Environmental Buzzwords: Toxic Colonialism

Current Location: Geneva, Switzerland

I’m absorbing so much information every single day at work that I decided to do another post on something I learned about this week. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working at UNEP this summer and the learning curve is extremely high. Since I work in the Chemicals & Waste Branch, I’ve had to familiarize myself with the relevant United Nations treaties. UN treaties are known by the original conference that organized a treaty around a certain issue area. One environmental conference that many people are familiar with, especially now, is the UN Climate Change Conference. You’ve probably heard of one of the recent meetings of this conference: COP-21 in Paris, where the conference negotiated the Paris Agreement.

COP, for those of you who don’t know, stands for Conference of Parties. Countries that are “Party to”, have ratified the original treaty and its subsequent modifications, meet annually to discuss the treaty, its implementation, and to propose amendments. COP-21 in Paris was therefore the 21st yearly session of the UN Climate Change Conference. Each of these important conferences has a Secretariat housed in one of the UN programme offices. The Secretariat is responsible for coordinating the activities of the conference. This will vary by conference. Each conference will set out a Terms of Reference for the Secretariat, ie. what the relevant UN programme is responsible for in terms of the activities and coordination of the provisions of the treaty and the subsequent COPs.

There are four major conventions that are related to the project that I am working on this summer. These four conventions are housed in the Chemicals & Waste Branch and are critical in terms of chemicals and waste management international frameworks. They are the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm conventions, and the Minamata Convention on Mercury. I mentioned in my last post that I attended a picnic to celebrate the 50th signatory to the newest of the four, the Minamata Convention, and that number is already up to 65. I won’t bore you with the details on these conventions, although they are entirely fascinating and I would encourage you to learn more about them.

The convention I’m going to focus on is The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The basic premise of the convention is the sound management of chemicals and waste, specifically creating provisions on how waste can be moved across transnational boundaries. It develops a regulatory framework for when transboundary movement of waste is permissible according to environmentally sound management.

But ultimately, what the convention works to prevent is toxic colonialism. This is a term that I had never heard of before and was horrified to discover its origins. Chemical or toxic colonialism is when a developed country ships its toxic waste off to a developing country rather than disposing of it properly. This could occur consensually or non-consensually; toxic colonialism occurs even when the country in question agrees to accept toxic waste in exchange for a cash payment. Turning over toxic materials to a country or an individual strapped for cash at the expense of the area’s environmental or human health is clearly wrong.

There have been many documented cases of toxic colonialism prior to the implementation of the Basel Convention. One of the impetuses for the Basel Convention was the Khian Sea waste disposal incident. In 1986, a vessel called the Khian Sea left Philadelphia with 15,000 tons of incinerated trash. After being rejected from multiple international ports over the course of a year, the Khian Sea dumped 4,000 tons of ash on a beach in Haiti before being forced off the island. The ship would go on to dump its remaining ash in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, rename itself the Felicia, and disappear.

I’ll let you guess which country still has not ratified the Convention, 15 years after it came into effect and 186 parties later.


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