How does the Rotterdam Convention work to protect human health and environment?

Questions & Answers with Aleksandar Mihajlovski, FAO’s Officer in charge of publishing the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Circular, the essential information document for the implementation of the Rotterdam Convention.

Q. What does your role at the Secretariat entail?

My work centres around the PIC Circular, which unifies and puts the two main provisions of the Convention into action – the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure and the exchange of information on hazardous chemicals. This document is compiled throughout the year and is published and circulated to all the parties and interested stakeholders twice every year, in June and December.

I am also in charge of reviewing and verifying the import response decisions and the Notifications of Final Regulatory Actions (FRAs), as well as proposals for listing Severely Hazardous Pesticide Formulations (SHPFs) into Annex III, submitted to the Secretariat by the parties to the Convention in accordance with Articles 10, 5 and 6, respectively. The parties submit this information to the Secretariat individually, it is then shared through the PIC Circular to all of the parties that make up the Convention – there are currently 157, and it is available to view on this website for all interested stakeholders.

Q: Take us through what the Convention sets out to do.

The RC team promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm. We do this by facilitating the exchange of information on chemicals that may be unsafe for use.

The Convention deals with pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted by the parties because of environmental or human health concerns and which have been reported to the Secretariat. Two such notifications for the same chemical submitted by at least two parties from two different PIC regions are needed in order to activate a complex mechanism that potentially might end up with adding the chemical to the Annex III list of hazardous chemicals, and consequently for it to become relevant for the PIC procedure. This obligation for the parties is indicated in Article V, followed by Annexes I and II, which provide detailed explanations of the information requirements for submitting notifications as well as the criteria for listing the chemicals in Annex III.

In addition, through Article 6 and Annex IV, the Convention gives developing countries or parties with transition economies the opportunity to submit proposals for inclusion on the list of SHPFs in Annex III, based on reports of poisoning incidents.

The information received by the Secretariat, is part of the information exchange mechanism and it basically activates the PIC procedure through which chemicals become listed in Annex III of the Convention text. The PIC procedure is relevant only for the Annex III listed chemicals, and means that parties are obliged to submit national decisions on their future imports of these chemicals. I believe it is important to emphasize that the response or national decisions on future imports do not constitute a ban considering that the party based on its own national consultative process has the intrinsic right to allow the import of the chemical, not to allow import, or to allow imports subject to specified conditions. Decisions by an importing country must be trade neutral, meaning that the decisions must apply equally to domestic production for domestic use as well as to imports from any source.

As all these import decisions are circulated to the parties through the PIC Circular, and at the same time are available online for reference on the database, the exporting country parties are obliged under the Convention to make sure that the exporter under their national jurisdiction complies with these decisions.

I would like to emphasize another very important aspect of the information exchange mechanism established as an obligation for the parties that are exporting chemicals produced but banned or restricted for use within their own territory to the importing party. It is important to note that the exporting party must submit export notifications to the importing party, informing it about the planned export of a chemical that is banned or restricted before the first shipment and annually thereafter.

Q. Why does the management of hazardous chemicals continue to be so important globally?

Well we live in a world where the chemical industry represents one of the largest sectors of the global economy and it is one of the highest contributors to growth in the world. All sorts of chemicals are used, applied and present in people’s everyday lives. They are utilised in the construction industry, in electronics, to make different sorts of plastics, in consumer care products and in agriculture were they are present in fertilisers and pesticides. This calls for attention and caution in the way these products are managed and dealt with starting from their development, throughout the production process, application and use through to adequate disposal.

As I have already underlined, many of the chemicals that are developed and available for use, have certain hazardous properties and pose risks to human health and the environment. The RC has 47 hazardous chemicals listed under Annex III. Thirty-three of these are pesticides and fourteen are industrial chemicals. At the Conference of the Parties (COP) this May, eight more chemicals will be considered for listing and the parties will decide whether they will be included in Annex III of the Convention.

The RC’s PIC procedure for pesticides and industrial chemicals in international trade, together with the Stockholm Convention (SC) on protecting human health and the environment from Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the Basel Convention (BC) on the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and their disposal, jointly through the synergies processes contribute to the careful management of hazardous chemicals and waste throughout their life-cycle, from production to disposal.

Ultimately, the adequate management of hazardous chemicals is a globally important issue because it is directly linked to the basic human rights of access to clean air, clean water and healthy and safe food. In a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, pesticides are cited as a global human rights concern. According to the latest figures, hazardous pesticides are responsible for 200,000 deaths each year, with 99 percent of these cases occurring in developing countries, lacking functional national regulations for hazardous chemicals management. 

Q. Explain the process of the Chemical Review Committee (CRC), how does science become policy?

I already explained the rationale and the mechanism that precedes the CRC’s work, after the Secretariat receives the notifications of FRAs and proposals for SHPFs, and before being forwarded for consideration by the CRC. The CRC is composed by 31 independent experts in chemicals management appointed by the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the RC. The Committee is responsible for undertaking the scientific review of chemicals proposed for listing.  

The Convention requires science-based risk and hazard evaluations, as well as scientifically supported information on physico-chemical, toxicological and eco-toxicological properties of the pesticides for which parties submit notifications of final regulatory actions for banning or restricting certain pesticides. The specific information requirements and criteria are listed in Annex I and Annex II of the Convention. Annex I contains all the information requirements for notifications made pursuant to article 5, whereas Annex II describes the criteria for listing these banned or severely restricted chemicals in Annex III, making them subject to the PIC procedure. Annex II requires a risk evaluation based on a review of scientific data in the context of the conditions prevailing in the party’s country submitting the notification of a final regulatory action to ban or restrict a chemical. The data should be generated in accordance with scientifically recognized methods and data reviews carried out in accordance with sound scientific principles and methods.

Based on the Committee’s recommendations, the COP, as the governing body of the Convention, decides by consensus whether to include or not to include hazardous chemicals and pesticides in Annex III of the Convention.  

Q. Give us an example of a success story you have overseen since joining the Secretariat. What happened, where? And, how did you see an impact at grassroots level?

It is hard for me to emphasize any country or Party to the Convention. To a certain extent, I am involved in almost daily communication with all the Parties to the Convention either regarding the Import Decisions either regarding the Notifications of FRAs or SHPF proposals they submit to the Secretariat. The verification and the review process in many occasions require getting back to the Party DNA to directly assist and meticulously explain the missing or not correctly provided information. The proper submission of these information exchange documents as indicated in the Convention text, is giving me unique chance and opportunity to help and assist Parties into implementation of the Convention at national level which further on has regional and global benefits fitting into the main objective of the Convention – to protect human health and the environment from the hazardous chemicals. Of course, the reward comes in the end with the addition of new hazardous chemical into Annex III, realizing that the chemical I started working with when initially submitted to the Secretariat, becomes part of the PIC procedure.