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US behind collapse of Cartagena biosafety talks

Representatives from some 170 countries convened in the historic city of Cartagena, Colombia in February 1999 to finalise the terms of an international biosafety protocol. After three years of painful negotiations, the stage appeared to be set for the emergence of the world's first international law to regulate the use, handling and cross-border transfers of genetically modified organisms. But these hopes were dashed when two weeks later the talks collapsed. Chee Yoke Ling explains what happened.


THREE years of work to produce the world's first international law on genetically engineered organisms and products collapsed when the United States led an attack to cripple the negotiations.

Together with Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the US formed the Miami Group to block the establishment of a system that would oblige exporters of genetically engineered organisms to obtain advance approval from importing countries.

Developing countries have been insisting that the protocol should cover all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (e.g. seeds, plants, fish, micro-organisms), whether they are for cultivation or human and livestock consumption. The US and its allies were adamant on excluding agricultural commodities such as wheat and maize. They wanted a blanket exclusion of GMOs intended for direct use as food or livestock feed, or for processing.

The lead negotiator for a united front of developing countries called the 'Like-minded Group', Tewolde Egziabher of Ethiopia, said 'it was important that ultimately we did not succumb to the pressure of the Miami Group'. The Like-minded Group, including China, was formed in Cartagena to consolidate the negotiating strength of those countries.

More than 170 countries were in Cartagena, Colombia for the last negotiation meeting in February. A biosafety protocol under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was supposed to be adopted on Tuesday, 23 February. It took almost three years for concerned countries, almost all developing countries, to overcome the first hurdle put up by industry and their supporting governments - contending that a biosafety protocol is not necessary - before a formal negotiation group was set up in 1995.

Since then, scientific evidence has been growing on the environmental and health hazards of genetically engineered organisms and products containing these organisms. Recent scientific data also reveal the hazards of naked DNA (the basic material that makes up a gene) from one species inserted into another species.

Countries in Europe have begun to ban certain products containing engineered material, or impose a moratorium on commercial cultivation of engineered crops. There is a widespread movement of consumers, organic food producers and retailers, scientists as well as politicians in many countries, calling for a moratorium on commercial releases until more basic research and monitoring takes place, and until there is a full public enquiry into the technology.

Ecuador has a constitutional moratorium on commercial releases of GMOs until national biosafety laws are in place.

Cartagena was the hope of many governments and citizens for the first international law to deal with the commercialisation of these new organisms and products. For those who are concerned that sound science, biodiversity, human and animal health are in danger of being sacrificed to a handful of powerful biotechnology corporations, the protocol, as a minimum, would have created a mandatory requirement for exporters to first obtain approval before shipping their product. This would have allowed importing countries, especially from the developing world, to assess the potential environmental and health effects of these genetically engineered organisms.

However, for the US, home to the world's leading biotechnology industry, the biosafety protocol was seen as potentially interfering with their agriculture exports and undermining the World Trade Organisation trading regime.

When calculated moves to first prevent a protocol failed, the US then systematically tried to block efforts for a strong biosafety agreement that would put environmental and health concerns as the main objective. This has been the US strategy since 1992 when the global community first addressed the need for an international law on biosafety, an approach that is blatantly to fully protect industry's commercial interests.

As a non-Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the US can participate fully in the protocol negotiations except that it cannot vote. With many countries and NGO observers criticising the US for its active disruption over the years, the Miami Group was a clever and unsurprising move. Canada became the key spokesman for the Group when talks in Cartagena escalated in intensity and deadlock.

Surrender

By 3.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 February, exhausted negotiators agreed that there would be no protocol when the Miami Group rejected the final European offer of a compromise even though this was regarded by the Like-minded Group and observers as amounting to a surrender to that Group.

Another meeting will be scheduled as a last attempt to reach agreement, but few if any expect that the position of the US and its allies will change in the coming months.

However, it was also a resounding moment for the majority of the developing countries which clearly showed the world that they were not willing to compromise environmental and human safety, even in the face of concerted opposition and back-handed threats in the weeks leading to Cartagena (see box for US intimidation).

Many delegates were visibly angry at the undisguised US protection of their $50 billion annual agricultural exports and their insistence that the biosafety protocol clearly states that WTO rules should prevail over the protocol. Biosafety in their eyes would be a trade barrier. This was also the Miami Group stance.

Like-minded developing countries and the European Union argued for the reverse, with many delegates over the past year strongly reminding others that the biosafety protocol was about environment and health. Given that genetically engineered organisms respond differently in different environments and ecosystems, it was of fundamental importance that a case-by-case risk assessment be made.

In one heated exchange, it was reported that Rafe Pomerance, deputy assistant to the environment secretary of state, categorically said that 'this is about a multi-billion-dollar industry!' The response from Ethiopia's Tewolde Egziabher was that 'this is about the environment!'

Colombia as host was under tremendous pressure to produce a protocol, but the Minister of Environment Juan Mayr made it clear that his government wanted a 'good protocol' and not just any protocol.

When it was obvious that the talks were heading nowhere, with all sides holding on to their positions and the Miami Group clearly showing no sign of compromising on any of the key areas, Mayr created another small group but this time along interest lines rather than traditional regional groupings. Many delegates felt more optimistic at this move as it was a more fair and balanced representation of concerns.

He decided that this group would focus on the provisions relating to the scope of the protocol and the application of the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure, as these represented the most difficult obstacle. The Miami Group, which had been set up to exclusively keep commodities out of the protocol's ambit, was by then also clear in its intent to ensure that countries do not have a guaranteed right to require, under domestic law, AIA for all engineered organisms and products not covered by the protocol.

Like-minded developing countries had originally wanted an international system that would trigger an international obligation for exporters to obtain prior consent before any shipment of genetically engineerd organisms and products can take place. By this stage of the talks, they were willing to concede the following: only first shipments would be subject to mandatory AIA; GMOs that are pharmaceuticals for human consumption will be totally excluded from the protocol; GMOs for contained use (defined in an unacceptably broad manner) will be excluded from AIA.

The EU first proposed a compromise that would still cover commodities, with the importing country triggering the AIA process rather than it being an automatic obligation on the exporter. The Like-minded Group, in hoping to achieve at least a basic international legal regime, agreed to the proposal. In addition, the Group wanted a clear provision that would allow importing countries to have the sovereign right to apply the protocol's AIA procedure for those engineered organisms not covered by the protocol. The US and its allies rejected this.

EU's shifting stance

The EU then went even further by proposing that the first Meeting of the Parties to the protocol would decide on whether and how to bring commodities under the AIA system. This would seem to have deferred the controversial issue, but in effect would be tantamount to giving in to the US. Observers noted that the EU was by now effectively shifting to the US position. Two European delegates reported to NGO observers that their governments had been contacted by Washington during the final hours.

The Like-minded Group counter-proposed that the first Meeting of the Parties should decide on how, not whether, to include commodities. In the meantime, the international AIA procedure should apply to exports of GMOs targeted for direct use as food or feed and for processing.

However, the Miami Group had by then rejected even the last attempt by the EU. The US proposed that talks be deferred to the year 2000.

'The failure of this process is because there were those who came not to negotiate and compromise, but to push their own views at all cost,' said Botswana's Mushanana Nchunga. The Miami Group's insistence on trade rules taking precedence over biosafety Ôreveals what this is all about - that there is the international right of those who produce and export potentially dangerous products, but those who receive LMOs (living modified organisms) have no right to health and life.'

Mexico expressed grave concern that certain considerations that are not environmental were highlighted. 'We urge colleagues not to let political issues affect our work,' said the head of delegation. Mexico is also the only Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country that supports a liability regime in the protocol. The Miami Group rejected the setting up of an international liability system. The European Union was willing to consider, after extended rejection of any liability provision, a post-protocol process to elaborate on this issue within 4-6 years. This would amount to no liability regime, said critics, as the EU is in favour of domestic liability systems. The Like-minded Group wanted the protocol to establish the principles of liability, even if mechanisms are to be worked out later.

China stressed that commercial profits should not be pursued at the expense of biosafety, while cautioning against creating international trade barriers.

Zambia emphasised the need for a protocol on biosafety, not trade, and Kenya hoped that in the resumed talks 'international interests and global welfare will take priority over short-term interests and short-term profits'. These sentiments were echoed by many countries over the closing hours of the failed talks.

Germany, on behalf of the European Union, said that a biosafety protocol should ensure mutual supportiveness with international trade rules, and that WTO provisions should account for a high level of environmental protection.

Cuba expressed regret over the Miami Group's attitude, adding that 'History will not forgive us.'

NGO observers at the Cartagena meeting lambasted the Miami Group, and the US particularly, for their hostile position. Gurdial Singh Nijar of Third World Network in a statement (endorsed by 15 NGOs and networks) to the final plenary, said that: 'Those who think[of] fighting their trade disputes through this biosafety protocol will soon regret it. For even they must know, or soon realise, that it is self-deceiving to think that the lack of scientific experience, the disquiet of the public and the lack of public acceptance are sufficiently addressed by trade battles.'

He said that a weak protocol so restricted in scope as pushed for by the Miami Group 'would be pathetic'. He said, however, that, 'Both the intensity of the negotiations and the fierce fight to limit the organisms amenable to safety procedures have heightened the awareness and increased the resolve of many countries, especially from the Third World, to develop comprehensive biosafety laws domestically, regionally and even inter-regionally.'

All the NGOs then called on concerned countries to do this as a matter of first priority and to prohibit the release and importation of genetically engineered organisms until comprehensive safety laws and structures are firmly in place.

'This will also send the clearest message that the global community will not always succumb to the might of the few amongst us,' the statement affirmed.

Dan Leskien of Friends of the Earth International said that raising the WTO spectre ignores the fact that the trade regime is against unjustified trade barriers, not just any barrier. 'Even the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures agreement under the WTO goes further in some respects than the Miami Group's distorted notion of a biosafety protocol,' he said.

Beth Burrows of The Edmonds Institute (US) lamented that science and safety lost out to power politics.

'The US and their Miami Group came here to do the bidding of the genetic engineering industry by sabotaging any real attempt to regulate this dangerous technology,' said Louise Gale of Greenpeace. 'We are pleased that the rest of the world did not give in to the enormous pressure from the US.'

Many developing country delegates left Cartagena with the urgency that strong national or regional laws will now be needed. NGOs resolved to mobilise national, regional and global moratoria on GMO releases and even bans in many cases. (Third World Resurgence No. 104/105, April/May 1999)

Chee Yoke Ling, a former university law lecturer, is an Environment Representative of Third World Network.

 


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