One year on, UN expert urges ratification of treaty to phase out mercury use

31 October 2014

The new United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste, Baskut Tuncak, urged governments around the world today to expedite the ratification process of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of the toxic heavy metal.

The Convention, hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), must be ratified by 50 countries to be legally binding. While 128 countries have signed the agreement one year after it was opened for signature and ratification, only seven have ratified it, jeopardizing its chances of being in force by the agreed-upon target of 2020, the expert noted in a press release.

“Ratification is an imperative for States to fulfil their human rights obligations,” Mr. Tuncak stated. “A delay in ratifying the Convention means that people and the environment will continue to suffer the human rights impacts of mercury pollution.”

Exposure to mercury – even small amounts – can cause serious, and even fatal, health threats. Such threats affect the rights of present and future generations to numerous human rights, including the rights to health, food, safe work conditions and a healthy environment, he said.

“The negative effects of mercury are of serious concern for children and women of child-bearing age who are proven to be especially vulnerable,” Mr. Tuncak noted, adding that “once released into the environment, the impacts of mercury on vulnerable populations is uncontrollable.”

The Convention is named after a Japanese city where the dumping of mercury-containing waste in the mid-twentieth century resulted in thousands of people in the community developing a neurologically and physically debilitating disease now known as Minamata disease.

Specifically, the Convention provides controls and reductions of mercury in applications from medical equipment to energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors. Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and promoting better training of health-care professionals in identification and treatment of mercury-related illness are also part of the agreement.

Mr. Tuncak’s appeal comes on the eve of a meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating committee on mercury, to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 3 to 7 November, in which he will participate.

Mr. Tuncak was appointed Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes by the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year.


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