Migrant workers in Gujarat's Alang beach, the graveyard of the world's used ships, have been deprived of full legal protection by any national law since 1983.
Now, a UN law is all set to further increase their burden.
Trade unions and NGOs working in the field of workers' rights, human rights, environment and health have complete lack of faith in the proposed UN treaty on ship breaking/ ship recycling through the International Maritime Organization, a UN body, because its objectives are regressive in nature.
The draft IMO convention on the safe recycling of ships is a text has been prepared at the behest of the global shipping industry in general and European ship owning countries and ship owners in particular.
It legitimises the ongoing exploitation of workers, villagers and the marine environment at the end of the life of a ship.
As long the ship breaking operations has continued on Alang's beach, there has not been and there will never be safety either for the workers or for the coastal environment.
The IMO diplomatic conference is scheduled during May 11-15, at a time when the entire Indian government machinery will remain occupied with the national parliamentary elections.
In any case, the proposed treaty is an attempt to undo the work of the global environmental movement that had attempted to legislate and regulate, through the UN's Basel Convention, the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, which has been endorsed by the Supreme Court of India.
A powerful shipping industry -- with the help of the governments of Norway, Japan and Greece in particular -- were deeply perturbed that they might no longer be able to escape the decontamination cost and profit at will by externalising the cost of pollution.
So they insisted the Basel Convention was incompetent to manage the issue.
UN's Basel Convention and its subsequent Basel Ban Amendment were designed to arrest the migration of dead and obsolete ships laden with radioactive material, asbestos, PCBs, toxic paints, biocides, fuel residues and other hazardous substances from rich shipping companies and countries to Indian shores.
This decision clearly noted that the Basel Convention does apply to end-of-life ships and further invited the IMO to 'continue to consider the establishment in its regulations of mandatory requirements, including a reporting system for ships destined for dismantling, that ensure an equivalent level of control as established under the Basel Convention.'
The tragedy of ship breaking/ ship recycling is not primarily a maritime issue at all.
It is clearly a matter of disastrous waste management practices and the injustice of externalising the costs of the industry on the backs of the Indian environment and the health of a vulnerable migrant workforce.
In 2004, at its 7th conference, the Basel Convention parties passed decision VII/26.
Instead of letting existing international environmental laws close the current loopholes available to ship owners, the latter -- through their governments ran for the cover of their clubhouse, the IMO -- to further weaken the present international regulatory framework.
In so doing, the IMO has played into the hands of a few ship owning countries who are acting at the behest of their companies.
It has attempted to turn back the clock and discard not only the principles and obligations established in the UN's Basel Convention, but almost every long standing global principle relevant to human rights and hazardous waste management.
The fact that the IMO is following the footsteps of the WTO and its position on ship recycling proves that the institution is fundamentally flawed. It is designed to place corporate profits above the need to protect our environment, occupational health and even democracy.
Ship breaking/ recycling is industrial activity for the production of secondary steel. IMO has no competence to deal with such an industrial process; it is competent only in maritime matters.
Besides, the proposed IMO treaty does not cover government ships and small ships.
The IMO has completely ignored the Basel Parties' concern for achieving an 'equivalent level of control' to that of the Basel Convention.
The treaty fails to stop the fatally flawed technique of breaking ships through the 'beaching method.'
In this method, ships are cut open in the sea and the tidal flats of the beaches of south Asian countries. As a result, it is impossible to contain oils and toxic contaminants from entering the marine environment or bring lifting cranes along side ships to lift heavy, cut pieces.
It is also impossible rescue workers, bring emergency equipment (ambulances, fire trucks) to the workers or the ships.
As a result, the fragile intertidal coastal zone cannot be protected from the hazardous wastes on the ships.
The draft IMO Convention text -- to be adopted during May 11-15, 2009 in Hong Kong -- does not call for the removal of ship breaking/ ship recycling operations from these pristine beaches.
It promotes the ongoing pollution of the marine environment with impunity and ensures that ship owners and ship owning countries escape accountability for their contaminated ships.
The proposed UN treaty does not alter the current graveyard status of shipbreaking yards in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The IMO treaty does nothing to prevent hazardous wastes such as asbestos, PCBs, old fuels, from being exported to the poorest communities and most desperate workers in developing countries.
It ignores the polluter pays/ producer responsibility principle, environmental justice/ transfer no harm principles, waste prevention/substitution principles and the principle of environmentally sound management.
The proposed treaty promotes the externalisation of cost of the pollution that was so infamously championed by the Lawrence Summers, chief economist, World Bank so that the real costs and liabilities of ships at the end of their life get transferred to developing countries like India.
The proposed IMO treaty is just a tool to further the unfair trade practices being advocated in the WTO at the behest of European governments in particular.
The fact remains there is no unfair trade that does not fall under the ambit of WTO.
Local regulations, such as those in India which require that imported products meet local standards on such matters as recycling, toxic substances, labelling and inspection, can be easily overruled by the WTO appellate body.
This IMO treaty makes their work easier.
Consequently, this act of legislation by a UN body on a subject which is beyond its competence and jurisdiction must be rejected.
The IMO convention on safe ship breaking/ ship recycling will do nothing to alter the current state of affairs that finds just a handful of developing countries managing the hazards and risks of over 90% of the world's toxic waste.
This is indeed contrary Principle 14 of the Rio Declaration, which calls on countries not to transfer harm.
As mentioned earlier, it also violates producer responsibility principles.
Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration, which embodies the polluter pays and producer responsibility principles, demands that environmental costs not be externalised.
The costs for managing end-of-life ships properly are significant and are conveniently avoided by ship owners under the IMO Convention.
Sadly, this draft IMO convention on safe ship breaking/ ship recycling has illegitimately been fathered by and for the shipping industry to maintain business-as-usual.
In the meanwhile, if the IMO, EU and other participating countries believe in democratic processes, or would like to have at least some pretence of it, they must seek the postponement of the IMO's diplomatic conference.
In particular, this must be done if there is any regard for a historically significant democratic process underway in India.
In any case, it would be unethical for the current Indian government officials to commit anything with regard to an international treaty at this stage.
It is incumbent on the IMO party governments to take the necessary action to postpone the Hong Kong conference as a first step and to desist from writing an obituary of the Basel Convention through the existing text of the IMO treaty on ship breaking /ship recycling.
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