CELEBRATION and challenge

 Svend Auken describes the achievements of the Basel Convention in handling hazardous waste, and outlines how it can be improved

Early in December, ministers for the environment will meet in Basel to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Basel Convention.

There can be no doubt that the creation of an international legal framework to control the transboundary movement of hazardous waste is an achievement worth celebrating. The threat to human health and the environment from hazardous waste is a worldwide problem, and coming to grips with pollution from industrial processes and products is a challenge to every nation.

During the first years of the Convention it became clear that the export of hazardous waste to developing countries had to be tackled as a specific issue. Many developing countries do not have the administrative and scientific resources to handle such imports. There is a moral obligation to protect them from the risks involved.

In 1995, therefore, a decision was taken to ban exports of hazardous waste from OECD to non-OECD countries. The proposal was put forward by the developing countries themselves and adopted unanimously. A number of countries have adjusted their national legislation accordingly but, unfortunately, too few have so far ratified this important amendment to the Convention. I hope that enough countries will join up in the near future for the ban to become effective worldwide early in the new millennium.

We have come a long way in defining what is needed at the global level to reduce and control the transport of hazardous waste across borders and to enhance its environmentally sound management. But there are many unsolved questions. When we meet in Basel the most important one will be: What happens if something goes wrong?

Liability and compensation
The meeting, the Fifth Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, is about to adopt a protocol on liability and compensation for damage resulting from the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and its disposal. This has been under negotiation since 1995, with the aim of making exporters and disposers of hazardous waste liable for any damage that may occur during operations – and to make it compulsory for them to be insured against it.

The adoption of the protocol will be an epoch-making achievement in the history of multilateral environmental agreements. It will be the first of its kind and will create an important precedent for others to follow.

There are, however, a few remaining issues. The most important is whether we need special funding for damages when the companies involved cannot meet the financial burdens, or when the damage results from the illegal trafficking of hazardous waste. Personally, I have little doubt that we do, and I support the proposal made by the developing countries to make funding available to take care of ‘worst-case scenarios’. I sincerely hope we will succeed in finding a solution to this question in Basel.

Decisions on the protocol and on funding will be major steps forward. But we also need to look ahead. The time has come to address the generation and management of hazardous waste comprehensively – to minimize the quantities produced and ensure that their management is environmentally sound.

If we are to minimize wastes, our economies must be restructured towards cleaner production. Business will have to be actively involved and the capacity of institutions to manage effectively will have to be strengthened. There will have to be a strong focus on capacity building, including at the state level where issues of compliance are handled.

Inadequate legislation
Illegal traffic is a special challenge. To cope with it, there must be a decisive effort to strengthen the legal framework and administrative capacity to handle hazardous waste. A recent survey made by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention showed that legislation on preventing and punishing illegal traffic is inadequate or non-existent in a large number of countries. The same goes for coordination between ministers and procedures for returning illegal shipments.

We must increase cooperation to make up for these shortcomings. We must assist in providing the national legislation and administrative instructions and capacity needed to effect control procedures, such as written notification and consent, and to enhance capacity for enforcement.

Regional and subregional training centres are crucial partners in creating the momentum we need to implement the Convention. Significant progress has been made in establishing such centres. But they need to be strengthened if they are to play their full part in the process of building the institutional capacity to implement the Convention effectively, to ensure compliance and to deal with illegal traffic. And they should expand their partnerships with industry and non-governmental organizations to contribute to the move towards cleaner production and sound management. Securing a multi-year financial basis for the important activities of the regional and subregional training centres is one of the issues we must address in Basel.

Avoiding conflict
Having solved the question of liability and taken decisive steps to implement the Convention and its Protocols, we then have to initiate a process to improve the Convention further.

The present voluntary regime for the settlement of disputes is obviously inadequate. There is a potential for conflict between the international trade regime of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the trade measures of different multilateral environmental agreements – including the Basel Convention. We cannot allow a situation where disputes arising from trade measures in an environmental agreement are brought before the WTO, and settled from the point of view of trade. We need to have effective mechanisms for the settlement of disputes within the multilateral environmental agreements themselves. Finding a solution to this is another opportunity for the Basel Convention to make a break-through in international law on the protection of human health and the environment.

The challenges ahead may seem overwhelming, but I am convinced that participants will work hard at Basel to remove obstacles to progress and show the way to decisive improvements in our dealing with hazardous waste over the next decade.

I am looking forward to celebrating the anniversary of the Basel Convention in this spirit – a spirit worthy of the intentions laid down in it 10 years ago

Svend Auken is Minister for Environment and Energy, Denmark.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn?

Complementary articles in other issues:
Jurgen Trittin: Spirit of optimism (UNEP: Looking Forward) 1999
Gunnar Kullenberg: Making the links (Oceans) 1998
Federico Mayor: The wings of life (Oceans) 1998
Terttu Melvasalo: Cleaning the seas (Oceans) 1998
John Prescott: Seven Threats to the Seven Seas (Oceans) 1998