Delegates representing 125 countries met in Basel, Switzerland and succeeded in agreeing a mechanism for ensuring that shippers of hazardous waste – whether engaged in legal or illegal activity – are made financially liable for environmental damage caused during transport or after eventual disposal.

Many environmental NGOs criticised the agreement for being too much of a compromise, but Klaus Töpfer, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, hailed it as an historic achievement. “For the first time, we have a mechanism for assigning responsibility for damage caused by accidental spills of hazardous waste during export or import,” said Töpfer.

Earth Negotiations Bulletin, offering daily reports on the meeting, cited “determined and

increasingly desperate resolve” as a factor in reaching agreement.

A fund to pay for hazardous waste clean-up will be created with 123 countries signed up to contribute. This voluntary fund will ensure that, in the case of an accident, clean-up is undertaken even if final financial liability is still being determined. Environmental organisations, including Basel Action Network, wanted contributions to the fund to be compulsory.

The Basel Convention was founded in 1989 in an effort to deal with the management, disposal and transboundary movements of an annual world-wide production of 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste.

The pillars of the Convention are:

  • transboundary movements of hazardous wastes should be reduced to a minimum
  • hazardous wastes should be treated and disposed of as close as possible to their source of generation
  • hazardous waste generation should be minimised at source.

Summing up the achievements of the Basel Convention in its first ten years, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) states: “As a member of the batch of “pre-Rio” multilateral environmental agreements, the 1989 Basel Convention has been considered a landmark instrument addressing one of the greatest environmental threats resulting from industrialisation. The Convention’s primary and laudable aim is to protect developing countries from being the

targets of hazardous wastes movements originating in industrialised countries.” While admitting that the Basel Convention suffered from ‘inertia’ in its early years, ENB points out that as “time passed progress was made toward banning transboundary movements of hazardous waste to developing countries.” This recent decision on liability for environmental damage arising from transport of hazardous waste represents progress in another area of its work.

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