Of power affirmed to men and of safety denied to life

Reflecting on the collapse earlier this year of the Cartagena negotiations for an international biosafety protocol, the writer, who was actively involved in the negotiations, asks, 'Was the North serious about regulating genetic engineering, or did it merely wish to fool its own public, and, as usual, the South?'

by Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher

THE world expected a sufficiently robust Biosafety Protocol to come out of the February 1999 negotiations that took place in Cartagena, Colombia.

This did not happen. I was there, a Southern negotiator, a member of the Like-Minded Group. We will try the negotiations once more, but I am not optimistic.

My pessimism is based on weighing the considered recklessness of the Miami Group (the USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) and, contrary to propaganda, also largely of the European Group. I have examined the controversial provisions included in, as well as excluded from, the Chairman's draft Protocol, which was the basis for the last days of negotiations in Cartagena. In this draft, things went the way the South wanted only once for every 2.8 and 4.6 times they went the way the Miami and the European Groups, respectively, wanted. When I counted the number of times the positions of the Like-Minded and Miami, Like-Minded and European, and European and Miami Groups coincided, the numbers were 0, 18 and 57, respectively. In spite of the propaganda, therefore, the European Group had the same stand as the Miami Group more than three times for every time it had the same stand as the Like-Minded Group. The negotiations were, therefore, as ever, between North and South.

As ever, the motives were money and power, with the North Americans wanting to continue in their global control, the Europeans trying to reassert their right to the global foray at par with the North Americans, and the Southerners trying to be spared from continuing to be the prey.

These desires were expressed in many ways. I will give only some examples.

1. Socio-economic considerations

The Miami and European Groups would not allow the use of socio-economic variables even in risk assessment. The Chairman's draft (Article 24) contains the nearly useless statement: "Parties, in reaching decision on import, may take into account... socio-economic considerations." This is useless because it is qualified by the statement "consistent with their international obligations", meaning that they have to give priority to facilitating free trade. Thus the South is expected to accept whatever disruption living modified organisms (LMOs) might cause to their society and economy.

2. Liability and redress

The South needs an international regime on strict liability. As stated in Articles 8.5 and 19.3 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, genetic engineering is a new technology and we do not know what damage it might cause. We are told that even the insurance services in the industrialised countries do not cover anything to do with the biotechnology industry. Who are we, outsiders, to trust it completely? That is why the South proposed a fully developed international regime on strict liability. But the European and Miami Groups refused to even consider it. As a compromise, the South had to insist on meaningful moves in the Protocol towards a strict liability regime in the next four years.

3. Subordination of safety to trade

There also were fights directly over trade, with both the Miami and European Groups staking their claims to continue to control the South's resources and trying to outsmart each other in the process. They both wanted Southern countries, when they aim at a higher level of environmental protection (Article 2.4), to have their domestic laws subjugated to other, meaning trade, agreements. For a similar reason, they wanted the facilitation of trade to override safety considerations, and domestically produced LMOs not to have preferential domestic treatment (Article 22). How different is this from stating that the South will not be allowed to develop the capacity to produce LMOs?

The European Group, it seems, felt that the Miami Group had an advantage over them in genetic engineering. The latter agreed, and wanted Article 31, which subjugates the Protocol to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, so that they might flood the European market with LMOs and depress the development of new ones by Europe. The European Group thus wanted Article 31 removed. The Like-Minded Group supported them.

4. Precautionary Approach

The Miami Group opposed the Precautionary Approach totally. To appease their public, the European Group made bold statements about the Precautionary Approach (Preamble and Article 8.7). But, in the face of the Miami Group's opposition, they showed a quick desire to let go of Article 8.7. In a much less noticeable manner, they agreed to eliminate the Precautionary Approach from operative articles (e.g., Article 12 & Annex II, Articles 9.1, 13.4).

5. Human health

In a similar manner, the Miami Group wanted all health considerations deleted from the Protocol. But the European Group, perhaps feeling that their public would scrutinise health issues thoroughly, wanted health considerations included in most cases (e.g., Articles 4, 9.1,13.2, 14.4 and Annex II). But even they stopped short of subjecting to the AIA (Advance Informed Agreement) procedure on LMOs for pharmaceutical purposes to satisfy their pharmaceutical corporations, showing that when it comes to the crunch, the corporation wins!

6. The Advance Informed Agreement procedure

Envisaged by the Convention (Article 19.3) as the heart of biosafety, the AIA procedure came under the most sustained attack by the Miami and European Groups.

The South had started with the aim of ensuring that each trans-boundary movement of an LMO or its product would be under the AIA procedure.

The Northern Groups chipped away at the AIA procedure, removing bits, including products of LMOs, though they contain the transmissible transgenes; plasmids, though they carry the transgenes and are invasive of all sorts of cells; and organisms obtained through cell fusion below the taxonomic family level, though these contain novel gene combinations. Then they wanted to reduce the application of the AIA procedure to only once (Article 5.1). Worse still, they wanted to abridge the steps of the AIA procedure, even to the extent of sending notification and the merchandise together [Article 10.1(a)]. All this abridgement was to be done without increasing risk (chapeau of Article 10). What tricks would make this possible?

But, the most damaging were the many exemptions from the Protocol and/or from the AIA procedure, including those of LMOs which are for contained use, in transit, pharmaceuticals, and commodities (Articles 4 and 5). As if these were not significant enough already, the Meeting of the Parties was expected to exempt more LMOs (Article 5.4), and even each Party was to exempt any or all LMOs as it liked [Article 10.1(b)].

Armed with all these loopholes, there would virtually be no LMO, not even if it were banned in the country of origin, that anybody could not transport or use according to the Protocol, but without fulfilling its provisions. The only exceptions would be those LMOs which, under Article 8.6, the Meeting of the Parties requires to be always transported through the strict application of the AIA procedure. And, if the Miami Group had their way, even this would never have happened.

Was the North serious about regulating genetic engineering, or did it merely wish to fool its own public, and, as usual, the South?  - (Third World Resurgence No. 106, June 1999)

Dr Tewolde Egziabher is the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority in Ethiopia. At the Biosafety Protocol negotiations, he was the Chairperson of the African group of delegates and a prominent spokesperson for the Like-Minded Group which comprises almost all developing countries.