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A more nuanced approach to environmental hazards? : a critical review of the existence, priorities and scope of the Minamata Convention on Mercury Bassett, Andrea

Abstract

International environmental law contains a suite of treaties that seek to manage hazardous substances at a global level. The 2013 Minamata Convention is the latest and seeks “to protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.” This agreement enters a field where there has been a proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that have made poor progress against their goals. There were also already a range of MEAs that addressed mercury air emissions, trade and waste, and there are other toxic heavy metals that are not the subjects of individual treaties. This raises the question of why a new treaty was necessary and why it only covered mercury. Nevertheless, the Minamata Convention includes a few unique elements that have not been seen elsewhere in international environmental law: in particular, a specific article on artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) and a specific article on health impacts. This broadening scope raises questions of priority as the international community addresses livelihoods that depend on mercury and health impacts caused by mercury simultaneously in the same agreement. The Minamata Convention also has a wide range of potential co-benefits beyond its objective of protecting human health and the environment from mercury. While the Convention could be conceived as narrow by focusing only on mercury rather than heavy metals more generally, its depth and breadth of potential co-benefits expand the scope of what international environmental law can achieve. This thesis asks the question of whether the Minamata Convention signals a new dawn of comprehensive, adaptive and innovative environmental agreements or whether it was an unnecessary, duplicative, overly narrow agreement with inequitable priorities. It concludes that as a one-off agreement, based on its text, the Minamata Convention is a significant achievement for international environmental law. However, its success in reducing harm from mercury will be greatly dependent on the implementation of its non-binding provisions on ASGM and point sources of mercury emissions such as coal-fired power plants. Finally, more consideration must be given to efficiency in creating treaties in the future to address new environmental problems.

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