While Canada lags (or obstructs) meaningful progress on
greenhouse gas emissions, our federal government has taken a
better approach to mercury. We reported in June 2010 that a global agreement
to restrict mercury emissions was under discussion. Now it's
On October 10, 2013, Environment Canada announced that it signed the Minamata
Convention through the United Nations Environment Program. The
negotiating committee met five times, between June 10, 2010 and
January 18, 2013. The text was adopted and opened for signature at
a conference held in Minamata and Kumamoto, Japan, from October 9
to 11, 2013.
Details of the convention are available in six
languages. The 30 page Minamata Convention includes a ban on new
mercury mines, the phase-out of existing mines, control measures
for air emissions, and the international regulation of the informal
sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
The dangers of mercury poison became known to the world as
"Minamata disease", first observed in
Minamata, Japan in 1956. A local chemical factory, Chisso
Corpration, released methylmercury through its waste water over a
period of 66 years (1932 to 1968). Human deaths, and the deaths of
cats, dogs and pigs occurred for 36 years with no response from
either the company or government. As of 2004, Chisso had paid out
$86 million (USD) in compensation, and in that year was finally
ordered to clean up its contamination.
It seems a long time since then for the world to finally come
together to address this problem, with the the Convention's
opening preamble rightly noting the "particular
vulnerabilities of Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities
because of biomagnification of mercury and contamination of
traditional foods, and concern about indigenous communities more
generally with respect to the effects of mercury."
Canada, with a vast Arctic ecosystem, stands to gain as a main
beneficiary of this agreement. While local efforts are possible to
reduce mercury, more than 95% of our mercury comes from foreign
sources, mostly from US coal-burning plants.
To come into force, 50 countries have to
ratify, accept, approve or accede to the agreement, and 90 days
thereafter the Convention will come into force. While Canada is now
a signatory, it is not yet a party, meaning it has not ratified,
accepted or approved or acceded to the Convention. Indeed, 93
countries have signed it, most in October, but only the United
States is a party, having ratified as of June 11, 2013. Signatories
obligations are "not to defeat the object and purpose of the
treaty". Parties are legally bound by the treaty and agree to
be all the obligations, subject to "legitimate reservations,
understandings, and declarations."
In Canada, after signature, ratification will occur when Cabinet passes an
Order in Council authorizing the Minister of Foreign Affairs to
sign an Instrument of Ratification or Accession. Canada cannot
ratify the agreement until it has been incorporated into domestic
law; it is possible that domestic law is already in compliance in
some cases and so ratification need not wait for implementing
legislation. The Department of Justice will do a review to
determine what is required.
In either case, we may have a few years left to go before the
Convention has the force of law on an international scale.
Coal-burning is a major source of mercury, and countries that burn
a lot of coal may be reluctant to ratify. But it is encouraging to
finally see some action on this powerful poison, and to see Canada
at the environmental table. Now, Mr. Harper, when will you ratify
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