BROAD, global and dynamic

 Iwona Rummel-Bulska describes the development and outreach of the Basel Convention

Trade in hazardous wastes has become a global problem, and it demands global solutions. About a tenth of all the hazardous wastes generated around the world each year crosses national frontiers. A large proportion of this has gone, and is still going, from industrialized countries to developing ones, where disposal costs are lower.

Unfortunately many of these countries still lack environmentally sound management of waste disposal. Stockpiles of corrosive acids, organic chemicals, toxic metals and other wastes pose serious, acute and long-term health and ecological threats, causing groundwater contamination, leaching and other types of pollution.

Frontline measures are urgently needed to cope with existing hazardous waste problems in developing countries. They will need to take action to minimize and manage the wastes, but their capabilities for setting standards, enforcing them, and monitoring what is happening are quite weak – and they are plagued by a scarcity of resources for sound hazardous waste management policies.

Need for action
The international community first began to recognize the need for urgent action on hazardous wastes in the early 1980s. Work began then, under UNEP’s auspices, to elaborate a global instrument on managing wastes in an environmentally sound way, on their movements across boundaries, and on their disposal. The resulting Basel Convention – which was adopted unanimously by 116 states meeting in the Swiss city in 1989, and which entered into force on 5 May 1992 – is the broadest and most significant international treaty on the transboundary movement and environmentally sound disposal of hazardous wastes: 117 states, plus the European Community, are now party to it.

The Convention’s overall goal is to protect human health and the environment against the ill-effects of generating and handling hazardous and other wastes, and from moving them across boundaries. Other objectives include:

  • Reducing transboundary movements of wastes to the minimum consistent with managing them in environmentally sound and efficient ways, and controlling those permitted under the terms of the Convention.

  • Minimizing the amount of hazardous wastes that are generated, and ensuring that they are managed in environmentally sound ways.

  • Helping developing countries with the environmentally sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate.
The Convention helps to reduce waste by preventing hazardous shipments in five situations. Both importing and exporting Parties are required to block the movement of waste that the importing state does not want. They must prevent any shipment to which the importing state has not formally consented in writing. The exporter should prohibit any shipment if it has reason to believe that the wastes will not be managed in an environmentally sound way. All Parties must prevent any shipment intended for disposal in Antarctica. And they must not trade in any waste involving a country that is not Party to the Convention.

Notification and consent
There is a strict control system, based on the procedure of prior written consent. Countries must be notified of shipments to them, and give their consent before they can take place. Both the notification and the consent must be in writing. The same goes for states that the waste will pass through in transit. Every person who takes charge of a movement of hazardous or other wastes across boundaries must sign an official document. And if a movement of hazardous wastes cannot be carried out in an environmentally sound way, the state exporting them has a duty to take them back.

In 1994, the Parties to the Convention went further and decided to ban all cross-boundary movements of hazardous wastes from OECD countries destined for disposal in non-OECD ones, but this has not yet come into force.

Trade in hazardous waste that does not comply with the terms of the Convention or its control system is illegal – and considered to be criminal. Parties are obliged to enact stringent national laws to prevent and punish it. The state exporting the waste is responsible for the actions of those who generate and export it, while the state that receives it is responsible for those of the importer and disposer. A state responsible for any action leading to an illegal movement must ensure its environmentally sound disposal, for example by sending it back to the exporting country, within 30 days of receiving information about it. If an otherwise legal movement cannot be carried out in accordance with the contractual agreement, the exporting state must take it back, unless alternative arrangements for environmentally sound disposal are agreed.

Big profits, bigger costs
The Convention cooperates with Interpol over illegal traffic. This trade is increasing, as it can yield big profits – at the cost of irreparably damaging the environment – and it tends to flow from developed to developing countries. But nobody knows exactly how big the problem is; though many cases of illegal traffic have been discovered, they are only a small proportion of those incidents that actually occur.

There must be cooperation between countries to build up the capacity to tackle illegal traffic. United Nations regional commissions, and other regional bodies or conventions and protocols, should take an effective part in monitoring and preventing this. It is also important that customs officers and port authorities are adequately trained and able to take full control of the hazardous wastes being moved across frontiers.

Parties are to cooperate in helping developing countries minimize the generation of hazardous wastes and their movement across frontiers. Measures can include ensuring that adequate disposal facilities are available, that managers are able to prevent pollution, and that, if pollution occurs, the consequences for human health and the environment can be kept to a minimum.

Under the Convention international cooperation is to be extended to developing countries in:

  • Transferring technology and management systems.

  • Developing and implementing new environmentally sound low-waste technologies, and improving existing ones to eliminate the generation of waste, as far as practicable – and studying the economic, social and environmental effects of adopting the new technologies.

  • Developing and promoting environmentally sound management of hazardous and other wastes.

  • Promoting public awareness.
Success in implementing the Convention depends on developing the adequate capacity to do so both at the national and regional levels. Regional and subregional centres for training and technology transfer in the minimization and management of hazardous wastes are crucial for developing countries that lack technology and trained people.

The Convention also obligates its Parties to cooperate with a view to adopting a protocol setting out rules and procedures over liability and compensation for damage resulting from transboundary movements and the disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

A collective force
International environmental law is dynamic. The Basel Convention has developed as its Parties have adopted new decisions and amendments. It is developing into the legal international act that not only deals with controlling the movement of hazardous wastes across boundaries, but engages with the larger issue of their environmentally sound disposal, and involves technical assistance. It represents the intention of the international community to solve this global environmental problem collectively

Iwona Rummel-Bulska is Chief, Enforcement and Compliance, Environmental Conventions Unit, UNEP.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mark Edwards/Still Pictures

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:
Issue on Chemicals 1997