Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

19 January 2013

Africa: Mercury Treaty Will Help Protect Right to Health - but Governments Fail to Plan Phase-Out in Small-Scale Gold Mining

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN
Artisanal diamond miners at work in an open-pit mine in Koidu.

press release

The international mercury treaty just agreed sends an important signal that governments must do more to address the threat of mercury to the right to health, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 19, 2013, 140 governments created the treaty after five rounds of intense talks, which began in 2010.

"This is the first time that an environmental treaty contains explicit action on prevention and treatment of mercury poisoning," said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Although this treaty is a historic development, governments could and should have done more to make health strategies mandatory."

Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal. It attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children. It contaminates air, land, and water, and can travel far. The treaty addresses the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, in various products and processes, and in emissions from industrial facilities, such as coal-fired power plants. It will be called the "Minamata Convention" after one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters in history that occurred in Japan about half a decade ago.

In the area of artisanal and small-scale gold mining - the largest source of mercury pollution worldwide - the treaty obliges governments to draw up national action plans which ban the most harmful forms of mercury use, promote mercury-free mining methods, protect children and women of childbearing age, and seek to improve the health of miners. Children in particular are exposed to grave risks in artisanal mining, as they work with mercury or are present during the burning of the mercury-gold amalgam.

"Artisanal mining communities work under hazardous conditions," Kippenberg said. "We are heartened that the Minamata Convention contains specific steps to protect these communities, including children, from mercury poisoning."

However, Human Rights Watch criticized the treaty for failing to address child labor, or to set an end-date for the phase-out of mercury in artisanal and small-scale mining.

The treaty is legally binding and will be adopted at a diplomatic conference in October in Japan. It will then be opened for signature and come into effect when 50 countries have ratified.

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