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ENVIRONMENT-MALAYSIA: Ban on Toxic Waste Trade Intact, For Now

IPS Correspondents

PENANG, Malaysia, Mar 7 1998 (IPS) - A 1995 ban on the export of toxic wastes from industrialised to developing nations has survived the latest challenge to dilute it, raising hopes that the prohibition can stay intact for the next few years.

Meeting in the eastern Malaysian city of Kuching last week, more than 100 nations agreed to bar any discussion of amending the ban on the toxic waste until the prohibition itself is fully implemented.

“For the third time in a row, the world community has staved off the threat to the ban decision,” Greenpeace International and the Basel Action Network (BAN) said in a statement issued after the Feb. 23-27 meeting.

“The outcome is a victory for all except the small group of ban saboteurs,” the two groups said, referring to the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand which critics had accused of coming to the Malaysia meeting in “bad faith”.

BAN said that if the defeat of this year’s amendment at the fourth conference of parties to the Basel Convention is upheld in coming years, the ban on exports of hazardous waste “will likely remain untouched for at least seven years”.

It based its estimates on an assessment that it would take four to five more years before the ban on toxic exports is fully implemented, plus a little more time for formal adoption and development of criteria to force the prohibition.

Conference President Rosnani Ibrahim of Malaysia, who on Friday announced a last-minute consensus to reject any change to the ban, said it was important to realise that “we would not be where we are now had the ban not been adopted (in 1995)”.

The ban, agreed in 1995 upon by countries party to the 1985 Basel Convention, sought to bar exports of hazardous wastes from industrialised to developing countries starting Jan. 1, 1998.

But this has not fully entered into force, since only 16 countries have ratified the ban. A total of 48 more ratifications is needed so that the ban becomes international law.

Even before it is fully implemented, some industrialised and developing countries want changes that would allow non- industrialised nations to accept waste exports from rich countries for processing or recovery at a profit.

As proposed also by countries like Slovenia and Israel last week, these changes would allow developing members like them to join a list of members of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — and continue to process harmful wastes.

As drawn up, the 1995 ban bars exports from member countres of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-members — because most of the more than 400 million tonnes of waste generated annually comes from the developed world.

Environmental groups have documented cases of millions of tons of toxic waste, including harmful chemicals, exported from the United States, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Germany to India, Brazil, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China and Eastern Europe.

Critics said allowing an expansion of the OECD list would also allow industrialised countries to pressure developing nations into reviving waste-for-profit transactions despite the environmental and health toll for them.

While it was decided that no new nations would be added to the OECD list, the Kuching conference also agreed a compromise formula to “study the implications” of this list.

Countries like Denmark warned, however, that having a working group studying the possibility of expanding the list “might be misused by certain delegations to serve as a means for undermining the adopted ban on exports of hazardous wastes” from OECD to non- OECD countries.

The Kuching meeting also adopted, much less contentiously, two lists, one that specifies what are hazardous wastes and a second that lsts non-hazardous wastes that can be traded.

Their acceptance means they are now legally binding annexes to the Basel convention, which was adopted in 1989 amid growing outrage against the toxic waste trade. “It defuses the most vociferous industry argument and one which they asserted repeatedly in recent years — that nobody knew what the ban was banning,” BAN said in a paper.

Intense lobbying at Kuching meant that a final decision against an amendment to the ban on toxic exports was reached only at ministerial-level discussions Thursday and Friday.

“Canada, New Zealand and Australia have shown that they will go to any lengths to weaken the ban,” Nityanand Jayaraman of Greenpeace told IPS Thursday. “They seem to be acting as if it is a big privilege to receive waste.”

Australia, New Zealand and Israel protested Rosnani’s announcement of a consensus reached on shutting the door to amendments to the Basel ban. In the end, Australia, New Zealand and Canada adopted the decision with reservations.

But in the end, analysts say the test of the 1985 Basel convention, which was adopted in the wake of growing protests against the trade in waste, and the Basel ban will lie not just in their contents but in implementation.

Malaysian environmentalist Gurmit Singh says the Basel ban lacks power to be enforced effectively. “There is no teeth,” he was was reported as saying in a national daily. “Who is going to enforce the ban?”

Still, Nityanand says the Kuching meeting sent largely the right signals. It would help ensure that nations in favour of the waste trade — including those who invoke the principles of free trade in deadly waste — are cornered. “There is a moral force weighing down on the ‘baddies’,” Nityanand said.

The NGOs also had other concerns, such as being barred from crucial sessions of the Kuching talks. “The EC, for some strange reason, objected to the presence of NGOs in the working group meetings,” Nityanand said. Even the UN secretariat did not seem take the issue of transparency seriously, he added.

Interestingly, he added, China and Malaysia came out in support of the NGOs’ presence.

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