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A Brief Introduction to the Issue of Mercury

Mercury is a heavy metal that is widespread and persistent in the environment. It is a naturally occurring element that can be released into the air and water through the weathering of rock containing mercury ore or through human activities such as industrial processes, mining, deforestation, waste incineration and the burning of fossil fuels. Mercury can also be released from a number of products that contain mercury, including dental amalgam, electrical applications (e.g., switches and fluorescent lamps), laboratory and medical instruments (e.g., clinical thermometers and barometers), batteries, seed dressings, antiseptic and antibacterial creams and skin-lightening creams. Mercury exposure can affect foetal neurological development and has been linked to lowered fertility, brain and nerve damage and heart disease in adults who have high concentrations of mercury in their blood.
A Brief History of the International Negotiations on Mercury

21st Session of the UNEP Governing Council/GMEF: The UNEP GC/GMEF discussed the need for a global assessment of mercury at its 21st session in February 2001, in Nairobi, Kenya. Decision 21/5 called for the initiation of a process to undertake a global assessment of mercury and its compounds, and requested that the results of the assessment be reported to the 22nd session of the Governing Council. It also decided to consider whether there was a need for assessments of other heavy metals of concern. The decision included a clause underlining the need to take preventive action to protect human health and the environment, mindful of the precautionary approach.

22nd Session of the UNEP Governing Council/GMEF: At its 22nd session in February 2003, in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNEP GC/GMEF considered UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment report and in Decision 22/4 V, delegates noted sufficient evidence to warrant immediate national action to protect human health and the environment from releases of mercury and its compounds, facilitated by technical assistance and capacity building from UNEP, governments and relevant international organizations. The decision requested that the Executive Director consult and cooperate with other intergovernmental organizations in order to avoid duplication. The Executive Director was also requested to invite the submission of governments’ views on medium- and long-term actions on mercury, and to compile and synthesize these views for presentation at the Governing Council’s 23rd session, with a view to developing “a legally binding instrument, a non-legally binding instrument, or other measures or actions.”

23rd Session of the UNEP Governing Council/GMEF: UNEP GC-23/GMEF took place from 21-25 February 2005, in Nairobi, Kenya. Delegates once again discussed the issue of mercury and adopted Decision 23/9 IV, which requested that the Executive Director further develop UNEP’s mercury programme by initiating, preparing and disseminating a report summarizing supply, trade and demand information on mercury. The decision requested that governments, the private sector and international organizations take immediate actions to reduce the risks posed on a global scale by the use of mercury in products and production processes, and also requested that the Executive Director present a report on progress in the implementation of the decision as it relates to mercury to the 24th session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC-24/GMEF). It concluded that further long-term international action was required to reduce such risks and called for an assessment of the need for further action on mercury, including the possibility of a legally-binding instrument, partnerships and other actions at GC-24/GMEF.

IFCS-V: The fifth session of the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS-V) was held from 25-29 September 2006, in Budapest, Hungary. IFCS-V adopted the Budapest Statement on Mercury, Lead and Cadmium, which, inter alia: urged IFCS participants to initiate and intensify actions, as appropriate, to address the excess supply of mercury on a global scale through a variety of possible measures, such as an export prohibition, prevention of excess mercury from re-entering the global market, and a global phase-out of production of primary mercury; invited the UNEP GC to initiate and strengthen voluntary actions at the global level for mercury, lead and cadmium, including partnerships and other activities; prioritized considering further measures to address risks to human health and the environment from mercury, lead and cadmium, as well as considering a range of options including the possibility of establishing a legally-binding instrument, as well as partnerships; and called on countries to support these activities.

International Mercury Conference: From 26-27 October 2006, the European Commission convened an International Mercury Conference in Brussels, Belgium.  Delegates discussed actions needed at the local, national, regional and global levels to reduce health and environmental risks related to the use of mercury, with a view to providing input to GC-24/GMEF and relevant chemicals agreements. Options discussed included: development of a legally-binding international agreement on mercury; inclusion of mercury in existing legally-binding agreements; and voluntary and other measures.

24th Session of the UNEP Governing Council/GMEF: At its meeting of 5-9 February 2007, in Nairobi, Kenya, the GC-24/GMEF discussed the issue of mercury extensively. Participants’ preferences for international cooperation on mercury ranged from an immediate negotiating process towards a legally-binding instrument, to incorporating mercury into existing agreements, or concentrating on voluntary actions, especially through partnerships. Delegates agreed in Decision 24/3 IV that a “two-track” approach could be employed to take forward actions on mercury, while keeping open the path to a binding instrument in the future. Agreeing on the need to outline priorities regarding reducing risks from releases of mercury, delegates requested that the UNEP Executive Director prepare a report on mercury emissions and strengthen the UNEP mercury partnerships. It also established an ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG) of government and stakeholder representatives to review and assess options for enhanced voluntary measures and new or existing international legal instruments for addressing the global challenges posed by mercury. The Working Group was mandated to provide a final report to GC-25/GMEF in 2009, which would take a decision on the matter.

OEWG-1: The First Meeting of the Ad hoc Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to Review and Assess Measures to Address the Global Issue of Mercury was held from 12-16 November 2007, in Bangkok, Thailand. The OEWG discussed options for enhanced voluntary measures, and new or existing international legal instruments. The meeting considered a report on the Analysis of Possible Options to Address the Global Challenges to Reduce Risks from Releases of Mercury and discussed the available response measures for addressing strategic objectives. Delegates agreed on seven intersessional tasks to be undertaken by the UNEP Secretariat, including analyses of: financial considerations of a free-standing convention, a new protocol to the Stockholm Convention and voluntary measures; sustainable technology transfer and support; implementation options; organization of response measures; costs and benefits of each of the strategic objectives; meeting demand for mercury if primary production is phased out; major mercury-containing products and processes with effective substitutes; and funding available through the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

OEWG-2: The Second Meeting of the Ad hoc OEWG to Review and Assess Measures to Address the Global Issue of Mercury was held from 6-10 October 2008, in Nairobi, Kenya. Delegates to the OEWG used a document on the common elements of a mercury framework (UNEP(DTIE)/Hg/OEWG.2/8), prepared by the UNEP Secretariat, as a basis for their discussions. The OEWG deliberated and agreed a future mercury framework including: elements to be addressed by a mercury framework; the type of framework to be used; and the capacity building, financial and technical support required to deliver on the elements. The OEWG recommended that the Governing Council (GC) consider adopting the policy framework for addressing the global challenges posed by mercury and that the elements collectively constitute a comprehensive approach that may be needed to address, and resolve, the global challenges of mercury. The recommendation included two potential implementation modalities: a new free-standing, legally-binding mercury convention; and voluntary measures.

GC-25/GMEF: The 25th session of the GC-25/GMEF took place from 16-20 February 2009, at the UN Office in Nairobi, Kenya. Delegates agreed to further international action on mercury consisting of the elaboration of a legally binding instrument on mercury, which could include both binding and voluntary approaches, together with interim activities. In the decision (UNEP/GC/25/CW/L.4), delegates also agreed to convene an OEWG in the second half of 2009, and an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) with the mandate to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury, commencing its work in 2010 with the goal of completing its work by GC-27 in 2013. The INC is mandated to: specify the objectives of the instrument; reduce the supply of mercury and enhance its capacity for environmentally sound storage; reduce demand in products and processes, international trade and atmospheric emissions; address mercury-containing waste; specify arrangements for capacity building; and address compliance.
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