Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT: WTO Attacked for Ignoring “Precautionary Principle”

Danielle Knight

SEATTLE, Dec 3 1999 (IPS) - On the anniversary of one of the world’s worst chemical disasters the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is planning to dismantle health and safety regulations aimed at preventing such accidents, according to environmental activists.

Fifteen years ago, on December 3, 1984 Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide factory accidentally leaked poisonous gases into the city of Bhopal in India, killing more than 15,000 people and injuring about 500,000.

Today, the WTO “is making it easier for companies to commit atrocities like Bhopal while making it harder for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to hold corporations accountable,” said Kenneth Bruno, a research associate with EarthRights International, an advocacy group with offices in Washington and Thailand.

As WTO delegates met on the fourth day of their conference here to discuss reducing trade barriers, the Environmental Health Fund and Strategic Counsel on Corporate Accountability warned that the WTO was bent on dismantling safeguards designed to protect against potentially dangerous and harmful chemicals.

In a report tiled “Beyond the Chemical Century,” the groups said that nations which had tried to implement regulations that incorporated what has become known as the “precautionary principle” had been challenged by the Geneva-based trade body.

European countries, for example, banned sales of beef containing synthetic hormones because of concerns that ingesting the meat could lead to cancer and other harmful health effects.

They based their reasoning on the “precautionary principle” which states that, even if the cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically, if the product or activity poses a threat to health or the environment, precautionary measure should be taken.

When the United States, the main exporter of hormone-treated beef, challenged the ban before the WTO, the trade body ruled that the ban was not based on “sound science” and was an illegal trade barrier.

Europe refused to halt the ban and the WTO allowed the United States to retaliate by raising tariffs on items imported from Europe, such as Roquefort cheese.

“The WTO seems to think that it is more scientific to err on the side of risk than the side of caution,” said Neil Tangri, a program associate with the Essential Action, a group based in Washington DC.

France’s ban on asbestos – which incorporated the “precautionary principle” – has been challenged by Canada, a major exporter of the cancer- causing substance. And the United States, on behalf of the American Electronics Association, said it would challenge an EU proposal to ban certain toxic heavy metals, like mercury, in electronics equipment.

“Through the WTO, we are throwing precaution to the wind,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network which seeks a global ban on trade in toxic wastes and products.

Puckett worried that countries who banned the import of hazardous waste or toxic substances without prior consent could be challenged before the WTO.

Both the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Council on Metals and the Environment (an industry association) have said they may challenge the Basel Convention, which seeks to limit the trade in hazardous waste, under the WTO as a trade barrier, according to Puckett.

Reducing import tariffs on chemicals has been high on US President Bill Clinton’s trade negotiating agenda.

Puckett warned that lower prices for chemicals would increase demand, which in turn would increase worldwide consumption of dangerous substances, such as DDT, tetraethyl lead and asbestos.

“Basically the Clinton Administration, through the WTO, is advancing trade in chemicals which various international environmental agreements have targeted for global bans and phase- outs,” said Puckett.

Tangri said that WTO member nations have failed to learn from the lesson of Bhopal disaster.

“As a result of not taking precautions the survivors of the Bhopal disaster are continuing to live with the after effects,” he said.

Last month, with the help of EarthRights International a class- action lawsuit was filed against Union Carbide in Federal court in New York under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which provides for civil remedies for criminal violation of international law by US- based corporations.

While Union Carbide paid 470 million dollars as part of an out- of-court settlement, that granted company officials immunity from prosecution, Bhopal survivors claimed they had not been adequately compensated.

India’s supreme court later struck down the immunity clause, but let the settlement stand – 600 dollars for injuries and less than 3,000 dollars in the case of death, according to EarthRights. Many other claimants received no compensation

EarthRights said that over 120,000 survivors of the disaster are still in need of medical attention.

Ten to 15 people die each month due to injuries and illness caused by the disaster, according to the plaintiffs.

Representatives of the groups charged Union Carbide with continuing to withhold information on the composition of the leaked gases and their effect on humans.

The Bhopal accident occurred during routine maintenance operations at the factory when a large quantity of water entered one of the storage tanks through leaking valves and corroded pipes, which were not properly maintained, triggering a runaway reaction.

Such risky cost-cutting corporate behavior should be strongly discouraged, said Tangri.

“But it is precisely what the WTO is promoting,” he said.

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