First line of defence

Maria Celina de Azevedo Rodrigues describes how the Rotterdam Convention, by ensuring prior informed consent, will control trade in highly dangerous substances

Thousands of people are killed or seriously poisoned by toxic pesticides and other hazardous chemicals every year – one of the costs of our modern industrialized economy. Many of these synthetic substances also find their way into the natural environment where they poison plants and wildlife as well as our drinking water.

Meanwhile, unwanted and obsolete stockpiles of pesticides and toxic chemicals have been accumulating around the world in virtually every developing country. These products include persistent organic pollutants (POPs), highly toxic chemicals that remain in the environment for long periods of time, travelling thousands of kilometres from their point of release and building up in the fatty tissue of animals and people in the remotest corners of the Earth.

Governments started to collaborate on these problems in the 1980s by establishing the prior informed consent procedure. Known as PIC, this voluntary procedure has been overseen by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It has required the exporters of a list of hazardous substances to obtain the prior informed consent of the importer before proceeding with trade.

In 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, governments acknowledged the need to raise the level of protection by transforming PIC into a legally binding instrument. In March 1998, after two years of negotiations, governments finalized the text of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. The Convention was adopted and opened for signature at a Diplomatic Conference in Rotterdam in September 1998. By the end of 2001, it had been signed by 73 states and the European Union.

The Rotterdam Convention represents a vital step forward towards a world where all citizens and the natural environment are protected from the potential dangers of the trade in highly dangerous pesticides and chemicals. It strengthens the power of importing countries to decide which chemicals they want to receive and to exclude those they cannot manage safely. It also ensures that exporting countries will respect those decisions.

Saving lives
This practical and sensible mechanism will save lives and protect the environment from the adverse effects of these toxic pesticides and chemicals. It will establish a first line of defence against future tragedies by preventing unwanted imports of dangerous chemicals, particularly to developing countries. By extending to all countries the ability to protect themselves against the risks of toxic substances, it will ‘level the playing field’ and raise global standards for the protection of human health and the environment. In short, the Convention will enable the world to monitor and control the trade in very dangerous substances.

International cooperation
The Rotterdam Convention also promotes international cooperation by requiring the governments of the developed world to provide technical assistance to developing countries and to countries with economies in transition. In this way Parties with more advanced programmes for regulating chemicals can help others develop the necessary infrastructure and capacity for managing chemicals throughout their life cycle.
Thousands of people are killed or seriously poisoned by toxic pesticides and other hazardous chemicals every year
The Convention covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by participating governments. Severely hazardous pesticide formulations that present risks under the conditions of use in developing or transition countries may also be included.

At its adoption, the Convention covered 27 chemicals carried forward from the voluntary PIC procedure. Hundreds more are likely to be added in the years following the Convention’s entry into force. A Chemicals Review Committee will be established to make science-based recommendations to the Conference of the Parties, which will have the final responsibility for deciding which additional chemicals should be included.

The Convention will enter into force after 50 countries have ratified it. At present 17 governments have ratified, and many more are in the process of doing so. It is my strong hope and desire that governments will speed up the ratification process in order to have this important Convention enter into force in time for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

In this way the Rotterdam Convention – working hand in hand with the Stockholm Convention on POPs and the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes – will help keep the toxic products and byproducts of our industrial society out of the human body and away from the natural environment

Maria Celina de Azevedo Rodrigues is Ambassador of Brazil and Chair of the Rotterdam Convention’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee.

The Secretariat for the Rotterdam Convention is hosted jointly by UNEP and FAO. For more information, please visit


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals