Elemental Understanding for Ratification – InforMEA’s E-Course on the Minamata Convention
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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The Minamata Convention represents a strong new tool to protect human health and the environment from the effects of mercury.

The Minamata Convention represents a strong new tool to protect human health and the environment from the effects of mercury. Yet, this international success has received too little attention. A new e-course from InforMEA, a project of the MEA Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, addresses this reality by raising awareness of the Convention, illustrating why countries should ratify it, and by supporting the entry into force of its provisions.

This policy update briefly considers the role that increased knowledge of the Minamata Convention can play in speeding up its entry into force and its eventual implementation. Promoting comprehension of the practical provisions of the treaty can help countries better understand how the Convention will help protect human health and the environment from the effects of mercury.

Like many other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), science catalyzed the global call for negotiating a new agreement on mercury. Mercury is a particularly worrisome contaminate. It is a highly toxic element and persistent in the environment. It accumulates in flora and fauna, such as rice and fish. The e-course also outlines the effects of mercury on human health, including impeding the development of fetuses and young children and damaging the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, immune system and eyes. As the e-course explains, the origins of the Minimata Convention lie in the recognition of the effects of mercury through a multilateral discussion convened during the 2001 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council.

The sources of emissions outlined by the e-course highlight the unique difficulties involved in mercury management. These emissions are categorized as intentional emissions or unintentional or by-product emissions. Unintentional mercury emissions come from industrial activities including combustion of coal, mining, processing ore and metal production. Intentional emissions of mercury come from the use of mercury to create mercury and gold amalgam in artisanal small-scale gold mining. The Minamata Convention addresses both these intentional and unintentional releases, in order to meet its objective to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.

The e-course highlights the Minamata Convention as a strong agreement that could have a meaningful impact on global mercury emissions, but has yet to enter into force. As of August 2015, 12 countries have ratified the agreement, yet 38 more are necessary for the Convention to enter into force. Time is of the essence, because the Convention calls for the phase out of chlor-alkali production by 2025 and the use of mercury or mercury compounds as catalysts to produce acetaldehyde by 2018. To act on and meet these approaching timelines, the Convention must enter into force. Countries armed with a better understanding of their potential obligations, and the pressing need for the Convention to enter into force, may be more likely to ratify it, moving the Convention closer towards entering into force.

The e-course devotes considerable attention to the provisions of the Convention. What emerges is a sense that the Minamata Convention takes the best of existing MEAs, particularly the chemicals and wastes conventions. The e-course outlines the Convention’s provisions and mechanisms. The provisions on mercury wastes explicitly use the Basel Convention’s technical guidelines on mercury wastes. The Convention’s financial mechanism, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), replicates that of the Stockholm Convention. Also reminiscent of the Stockholm Convention are the Minamata Convention’s provisions to phase out, with possible exemptions, the use of mercury in products such as batteries and cosmetic products, and the use of mercury in some processes, such as acetaldehyde production. The informed consent procedure of the Minamata Convention, as explained by the course, looks much like those of the Rotterdam and Basel conventions.

With increased understanding of the provisions, countries can readily understand the Minamata Convention, particularly the procedures that are similar to other conventions. Grasping these practicalities, and their on-the-ground implications, is an important step to securing ratifications.

The Convention does not exist in a vacuum in global mercury governance, and promoting understanding of it can help develop and solidify partnerships. The Minamata Convention complements a considerable body of work already underway. For example, in the lifecycle approach to management, the Basel Convention governs the transboundary movement of mercury wastes, while the Minamata Convention governs the sources of mercury emissions. In recognition of this, the Minamata Convention explicitly recognizes the need for partnerships, and anticipates its role within the broader envelope of international efforts.

The implementation of the Convention will benefit from cooperation, both old and new. A fresh area of partnerships can be found with the health sector. The e-course explains the provision to promote preventative and treatment strategies for mercury exposure, and that these measures could include capacity building for health professionals and partnerships with the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization. Such explicit and collaborative engagement with the public health sector is unique among multilateral environmental agreements, underscoring the need for information sharing to maximize cooperative possibilities.

With financial, compliance and phase out provisions in place, and the inclusion of public health stakeholders, the Minamata Convention is nearly a complete package, waiting to enter into force. The campaign to obtain more ratifications requires information sharing so countries and stakeholders understand and embrace the Convention and its provisions. From there, the rapid deployment of resources and development of partnerships will benefit from even deeper understanding of the Convention in order to have an immediate, positive impact on the protection of human health and the environment.

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