The Minamata Convention on Mercury to which Namibia is a Party - is one of the newly established global environmental agreements. But what is really the Minamata Convention, how did it come about, what are its aims and objectives? This article attempts to attend to these questions.
Like other international negotiations, efforts to establish the Minamata Convention were quite lengthy. It all started at the 24th Session of the United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council (UNEP-GC) held in February 2007, where the issue of mercury was extensively discussed.
Delegates preferences for international cooperation on mercury ranged from starting a negotiating process for a legally-binding instrument to incorporating mercury into existing agreements or concentrating on voluntary actions, especially through partnerships.
At the 25th Session of the UNEP-GC held in February 2009, delegates agreed to further international actions consisting of the elaboration of a legally-binding instrument on mercury, which could include both binding and voluntary approaches, together with interim activities, to reduce risks to human health and the environment.
The meeting further asked UNEP to convene an Open-Ended Working Group meeting (in 2009) and to set up an Inter-governmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which commenced with its deliberations in 2010, with the goal of completing its work by February 2013, when the UNEP-GC meet for its 27th Session.
Tangible results were then produced at the 5th Session of the INC held in January 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.
The meeting addressed several policy and technical issues, including mercury air emissions and releases to water and land, health aspects, phase-out and phase-down, dates for products and processes.
A compromise was reached on the last night of the meeting, based on a package addressing outstanding issues to the preamble, finance and compliance. Thus, delegates successfully completed the negotiation of a new global treaty: the Minamata Convention on Mercury which was adopted on the 10th October 2013 and came into force on the 16th August 2017. The objective of the Minamata Convention is to protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. This Convention is in the category of international environmental treaties that deals with hazardous wastes, such as Basel Convention on the Trans boundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposals, the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent on Certain Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade and the Stockholm Convention on Persistence Organic Pollutants.
It bans new and phase out existing mercury mines, contains measures to control trade, releases, air emissions and regulates the informal artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is widespread and persistent in the environment. As a natural occurring element, it can be released into the air and water through the weathering of rock containing mercury ore or through human activities such as industrial processes, mining, deforestation, and water incineration and the burning of fossil fuels. It can also be released from a number of mercury containing products such as dental amalgam, electrical appliances (such as switches and fluorescent lamps) laboratory and medical instruments (such as clinical thermometers and barometers), batteries, seed dressings, antiseptic and antibacterial creams and skin-lightening creams.
Its exposure can affect fatal neurological development and has been linked to lower fertility, brain and nerve damage and heart disease in adults who have high levels of mercury in their blood.
To date, there are 128 signatories to the Minamata Convention while 105 countries have ratified it. The name of the Convention ‘Minamata’ is derived from Minamata Bay (in Japan), which came as a result of scientific studies on the cause of strange mental health disease among fishermen and their families who consume mercury polluted fish from the bay.
The study showed that the source of contamination was a mercury-processing factory, which had continuously released mercury waste into Minamata Bay.
Namibia acceded to the Minamata Convention on the 6th August 2017. The Convention does not prohibit the use of mercury, but provides for controlled production and release of mercury.
*Absalom Shigwedha is a Namibian independent journalist specializing in environmental reporting, who has also read international environmental law.