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Cambodia Must Ratify Basel Convention to Avoid "Logic" of Waste Trafficking

by Jim Puckett, Opinion for the Phnom Penh Post - 28 May 1999
The United States, a country that produces the most toxic waste in the world has nominated a new Treasurer -- Mr. Lawrence Summers. This is the man who will be in charge of the finances of the richest country in the world. It will be his name that will be scrawled on all American bills. But Mr. Summers' name will also forever be inextricably linked to some words he penned in 1991 which sent shock waves around the world. At that time, Mr. Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, wrote in an internal memo, "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that." While the world expressed its outrage at these words after they were leaked to the global press, the real, lasting outrage is that these words are frighteningly true. Hazardous waste if left to free market forces, will, inevitably flow on a path of least resistance from rich, heavily industrialized countries to poorer countries.

Six months ago Cambodia was rudely introduced to the "impeccable logic" of the international trade in hazardous waste with the dumping of 3,000 tonnes of mercury contaminated industrial wastes by one of the world's largest chemical companies. The dumping was far more than a mere insult to an already beleaguered nation. It was injury. As a result of the chemical violence by the rich arrogant company from a far-away land, Cambodian citizens became ill and died, Cambodian property was destroyed, others died in the panic that ensued, soil was contaminated, businesses suffered, governments and armies mobilized, many were arrested, and great monetary expense incurred for the parties involved. While the cause and effect relationship of the deaths and illnesses will likely remain unproved, only a fool would claim that these events would have happened if Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) had taken responsibility for their own wastes at home rather than dump them on an unsuspecting nation.

Today, the toxic waste has been returned to Taiwan, persons have been arrested, and all is normal again along the white beaches of Sihanoukville. Newspapers now report on other troubles and life in Cambodia goes on. But if Cambodians are at all numbed into forgetting the occurrence at Sihanoukville, or are tempted to dismiss it as an anomalous, one-time event, they do so at their own peril. After all, the economic logic is impeccable. And the toxic waste mountains around the world are growing -- particularly in Asia.

Indeed the repetition of this unwanted free trade in hazardous wastes to the shores of Cambodia should be considered inevitable unless Cambodians take the necessary steps to minimize the opportunities that might be available to unscrupulous waste traders. Cambodia has already taken one of these steps, but two steps are necessary:

First, Cambodia must ban the import of all hazardous wastes into the territory of Cambodia. We understand that a solid waste sub-decree has just been signed that accomplishes this. We applaud the passage of this sub-decree and hope that it provides for no exceptions and has sufficient "teeth" in stiff penalties for those caught profiting from the import of toxic wastes.

Second, Cambodia must now accede to the Basel Convention and ratify the Basel Ban Amendment to that Convention which bans all exports of hazardous wastes from the 29 richest, most highly industrialized countries -- the member states of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to the rest of the world.

After all, the Basel Convention is the global response to Mr. Summers' "impeccable logic." The Basel Convention applies legal constraints to contain the obvious abuses inherent in a free trade in hazardous wastes. Already the Basel Convention has over 120 members. Remaining non-member countries like Cambodia are in the clear minority and will be seen as targets by waste traffickers. The Basel Ban Amendment which dramatically strengthened the Basel Convention by placing the burden for prevention on the countries which produce the vast majority of the world's toxic waste, will go into the force of international law after it receives the necessary 62 ratifications. Cambodia's ratification will not only hasten this process but will send a signal to the entire world that Cambodia is off-limits and is serious about cooperating to end this global scourge.

The advantages of joining the Basel Convention and Ban are compelling and include:

-- Once the Basel Ban Amendment enters into force, the OECD countries, which produce an estimated 90% of the global load of toxic waste will be forbidden from exporting their wastes to Cambodia and all other non-OECD countries. Cambodia's ratification will hasten this process.

-- By becoming a Party to the Basel Convention, non-Party states such as Taiwan will be forbidden by international law from trading their wastes with Party States (such as Cambodia).

-- All Basel Parties will be required to recognize Cambodia's import ban, and forbid export of hazardous wastes to Cambodia.

-- The Basel Convention obligates all Parties to consider illegal traffic in hazardous wastes a criminal offence. As such it will in most cases be punishable by jail time rather than mere fines.

-- The Basel Convention is in the process of adopting a special protocol on liability and compensation which will ensure that in the future, companies such as FPG will be liable for their illegal dumping and be forced to pay compensation to the victims and country of Cambodia.

-- Cambodia will be eligible for technical assistance regarding domestically produced hazardous wastes as well as training for customs officials to identify hazardous waste cargo, from the regional cleaner production centers of the Basel Convention.

Cambodia can ill afford to indulge in wishfully thinking that the Sihanoukville crisis was an anomaly. As was stated by T.J. Wu of the Green Formosa Front in Taiwan, "I think this situation will happen again in Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam." And her statement refers to the stockpiles of Taiwanese hazardous wastes alone. When one realizes that Taiwan is but one of over 30 heavily industrialized countries with a huge economic incentive to export their problems rather than solve them at home, it becomes obvious that without safeguards, Cambodia will surely be victimized again and again.

For that reason the Cambodian Parliament must move now to ratify the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment. As horrible as the Sihanoukville dumping tragedy has been, the greater tragedy would be a lesson unlearned -- a country's failure to take the simple, practical steps to counter the "impeccable logic" of the toxic waste trade and say "never again."

-- Jim Puckett is Coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), an international alliance of activists working to prevent the globalization of the toxics crisis worldwide.

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