by TWN/Cecilia Oh

Nairobi, 25 May 2000 - Sixtyfive countries have signed on 24 May the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol at a signing ceremony, opened by Juan Mayr Maldonado, the Minister of Environment for Colombia, who chaired the final round of the Biosafety Protocol negotiations.

The Biosafety Protocol was officially open for signatures on Wednesday, during the High-Level Segment of the 5th Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Juan Mayr Maldonado was the 2nd to put his signature to the Protocol. The Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi was the first to sign the Protocol during the opening ceremony of the COP 5. The Biosafety Protocol is the first internationally binding legal instrument that regulates the handling, use and transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (known as living modified organisms in the Protocol).

The negotiations for the Biosafety Protocol took nearly five years, and were marked by stiff opposition from the biotech industry and the US-led Miami Group (also comprising of Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay).

Canada (which hosted the final meeting where the protocol was concluded) has declared that it will not sign the Protocol. But Chile and Argentina are now signatories. It is unclear whether Canada will sign the Protocol at a later stage. The US cannot be a Party to the Protocol as it is not a Party to the CBD under which the Protocol was negotiated.

The Biosafety Protocol will come into force 90 days after 50 countries have submitted their ratification papers. Nearly two thirds of the signatories are developing countries. Nearly all of the G77 countries had formed themselves into a negotiating bloc, "the Like-Minded Group" for the negotiations, and had advocated a strong Protocol as they are the primary importers of GMOs and face an even greater environmental risk as they are the centres of crop origin and diversification.

Many of the Environment Ministers speaking during the High-Level Segment called for the speedy ratification and implementation of the Protocol. The Minister of Environment for Malaysia, Law Hieng Ding, also urged all Parties and Governments pending the coming into force of the Protocol to adopt a "transparent and responsible approach towards the provision of information relating to the transboundary movement of LMOs."

Prior to the High-Level Segment, a Ministerial Round Table was organised by UNEP and the Kenyan Government to discuss issues related to capacity building in developing countries for the implementation of the Biosafety Protocol. The Round Table was kicked off with two presentations; one from an industry representative and one from a developing country NGO representative.

Lim Li Lin from the Third World Network stressed on the differences between biotechnology and genetic engineering biotechnology which is a significant departure from traditional methods and which introduces significant differences as genes can be transferred between distant species that would never interbreed in nature. She identified some of the deficiencies in the Biosafety Protocol, which should inform the development of the framework for capacity building in developing countries.

"Developing countries need to build up their capacity on three key fronts: biosafety regulation, scientific capacity, and monitoring and enforcement capabilities. The Protocol sets down minimum standards and national biosafety legislation must fill the gaps in the Protocol to ensure the highest standards of biosafety," she informed the Ministerial Round Table. She further added that scientific capacity was also crucial in order for risk assessment and in order for countries to be able to make decisions on import. There also had to be an effective monitoring and enforcement capacity nationally.

She called for aid programmes and international agencies to be prohibited from including GMOs in their aid or projects as this undermined the spirit of the Protocol. In addition, she stressed that the role of the private sector in capacity building has to be carefully defined. The Chairman's summary of the Ministerial Round Table recognised the need for capacity building and technology transfer at the national and regional level, and at the institutional and human level, in order to effectively implement the Protocol. It also recognised the need for public awareness and for the participation of civil society organisations and the private sector. (SUNS4677)

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