The international community comes together in Johannesburg, South Africa this week (Dec. 4-9) under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program to conclude the draft of an historic treaty to rid the world of its most toxic and harmful chemicals.

Among the worst of these are the pesticide DDT and dioxins created as byproducts in combustion and various industrial processes, including waste incineration, and during the life cycle of the most toxic plastic made: polyvinyl chloride (also known as PVC or vinyl).

The meeting, attended by over 120 governments, is the final set of negotiations to draft the global treaty to stop these so-called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. The highly charged POPs debates have no less at stake than the future of the planet. If concluded, the treaty should go into effect in May 2001. Unfortunately, a few powerful governments are obstructing the will of the majority.

POPs accumulate in the food chain and in body tissue to cause a host of environmental and health maladies. Most are organochlorine compounds that do not readily break down or degrade, sometimes for decades or even centuries, resulting in a continuing cycle of damage as they are transported by wind and water around the planet and make their way up the food chain. Indeed, due to weather conditions, they are deposited especially in colder regions, to the point where entire indigenous Arctic population will be at risk if global action is not taken immediately. POPs are already pervasive throughout the environment, including areas far from the source of their release and in human beings.

The health effects to humans alone include hormone disruption, immune-system suppression, cancers, reduced fertility, developmental impairment, growth deficits, neurodevelopmental disabilities and learning problems. That is why the international community, under U.N. leadership, launched POPs treaty negotiations in Montreal, Canada in 1998. After four sessions, it is now poised to complete its task in South Africa.

One would expect, given the magnitude of what is at stake, that governments generally would be working in concert on this global environmental imperative. But this is not the case.

During the negotiations to date, a most unfortunate political dynamic has prevailed. A few powerful industrial countries, led by the United States, hold regressive, obstructionist positions on key provisions of the draft POPs treaty. These countries include the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. By refusing to accept language to the effect that the aim of the treaty is to eliminate all POPs, including unintentionally produced byproducts such as dioxins, and by proposing exemptions or legal loopholes to render the treaty as weak as possible, these countries are essentially trying to maintain the status quo, despite its record of damage to health and to the environment.

A leaked document sent by the U.S. government to European Union officials reveals U.S. positions based on a mandate to weaken the text and avoid any new legal obligations. In addition, government sources confidential to Greenpeace International reveal that these few industrialized countries have been actively lobbying selected developing countries, including Brazil, India and South Africa, in an attempt to avoid being further isolated as the “bad guys” and to divide the international majority. South Africa, as part of the African group, is bound by that group’s more progressive positions, but it remains uncertain whether Brazil or India can be co-opted into the so-called regressive camp.

Why would these countries, with their potential for global leadership on sustainable development, act in this way? The answer is complicated, but one significant factor is the influence of special-interest businesses that refuse to make the changes needed to stop the poisoning of the planet and effectively influence their governments’ negotiating positions.

The U.S. and its allies cannot be said to reflect the exercise of a fair and objective democracy. The unhealthy connection between government and business is too entrenched for genuine democracy to prevail. When political campaigns are funded by and for special-interest industry, the resulting political dynamic is not surprising.

A comparison of the U.S. positions on the POPs treaty, taken from the leaked document, with the position paper of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reveals an almost identical intent to protect a few businesses rather than the future of humanity. The result of this dynamic is a policy lacking vision, based on no changes in current destructive practices. This reflects a distorted view of democracy: a legally corrupt democracy that can be bought and sold.

This is not the only key environmental issue in relation to which these same governments have played an obstructionist role. They were the only countries opposed to the international law adopted under the London Convention in 1993 to ban ocean dumping of industrial wastes and ocean incineration. They were also the only ones to oppose another decision in 1994 to ban, under the Basel Convention, the dumping of industrialized countries’ hazardous wastes in developing countries.

In the long term, one can only hope that this unhealthy government-special interest dynamic is replaced by one based on independent, objective governments serving the broad public good and detached from undemocratic influences. In the short term, with respect to the desperately needed POPs treaty, one can only hope that most members of the international community (led by the European Union, Africa and most of Latin America and Asia) remain strong in their determination to adopt a treaty adequate to the problem.

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