Creating a Safer World with the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Mercury is known as a dangerous chemical compound. Although it provides benefits in several ways, mercury can seriously threaten the safety of humans and nature if its use is not properly controlled. Mercury that is misused can inhibit enzyme function, cause kidney damage, nervous disorders, symptoms of tremor in body parts, stuttering, walking stiffness, loss of balance and even death (Hadi, 2013). The large-scale destructive effects of mercury poisoning were felt by Japan in the 1950s, this tragedy is known as the Minamata Disease. The Minamata epidemic started with residents of the Minamata area consuming fish from the sea around Minamata Bay. Little did they know that their food had been contaminated with mercury from the remaining waste from the plastic industry. The mercury absorbed by their bodies then leads to symptoms of mental disorders and neurological defects, which are particularly seen in children. The first recorded case of Minamata Disease was a five-year-old girl who suddenly had difficulty walking and speaking in 1956. In March 2001, 2,265 victims were officially declared to have Minamata disease (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan, 2002).

Tragedy of this kind is a real obstacle to development. First, the mercury problem reduces the quality of human resources. Second, the problem also intersects with the economy because the cost to overcome it is not small. Japan spent funds that are even greater than the profits derived from the operation of Chisso Corporation, the company that dumped its waste into Minamata Bay. Third, mercury can disrupt environmental ecosystems by giving toxic effects to animals, plants and microorganisms so that it clearly hinders sustainable development. It is important to note that mercury pollution, both in water and in the air, can travel and spread to other places so that a country can be affected by mercury pollution that starts out in other countries. Mercury in the air also contributes to increasing the earth’s temperature (global warming), so this issue can be categorized as a global issue. The urgency to make an international regulation as an effort to prevent mercury pollution then gave birth to a legal framework in the form of a convention, namely the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

The process of negotiation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Basically, norms regarding mercury pollution and the bad effects that accompany it have been constructed in countries around the world. Countries already have similar values and views on this matter, reflected in the adoption of measures to reduce the risk of mercury in European Union national legislation in the 1990s, the act of reducing the application of mercury in various fields including mining and agriculture (fungicides and pesticides) by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and international initiatives under the North Sea Conferences and the OSPAR Convention for the North-East Atlantic to reduce mercury releases. Countries then realized the importance of cooperation and the formulation of a comprehensive regulation regarding mercury. However, there had been differences of opinion regarding the nature of the instrument; legally binding or voluntary?

In 2001, the United States proposed a study on mercury to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). It is supported by the European Union, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Two years later, a global assessment of mercury conducted by UNEP resulted in the finding that ‘there is sufficient evidence of the significant adverse effects of mercury and further, stronger actions are needed’. The results of the global assessment of mercury underscore the international dimension of the mercury issue. Norway and Switzerland later expressed the need for a legally binding instrument as voluntary action was deemed insufficient to reduce mercury use, supported by the European Union, Iceland, the African Group and Asia Pacific. However, this was opposed by the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Argentina who argued that a legally binding instrument will require a lot of time and resources for its negotiation implementation so that it will be less effective, this group of countries promoted voluntary partnership programs instead. China and India strengthened their opposition by arguing that legally binding instrument could limit the right to economic development where mercury emissions are unavoidable. In 2007, the support for a legally binding instrument has increased. Additional support came from Gambia, Senegal, Russia, Brazil, Uruguay and Japan. When the Obama administration entered the White House in 2009, the United States no longer opposed legally binding instrument on mercury. After intense negotiations, a legally binding convention on mercury began to be formulated in 2010. Finally, the text of the Minamata Convention on Mercury was officially adopted and opened for signature at the Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Kumamoto, Japan, on 10 October 2013 (Eriksen & Perrez, 2014).

Until now, this convention has 142 member states with 128 countries that have signed it. The Minamata Convention consists of 35 Articles which regulate the trading of mercury (Article 3), products with added mercury (Article 4), management of mercury in Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) (Article 7), control of mercury emissions (Articles 8 and 9), management of mercury contaminated land (Article 12), funding (Article 13), exchange of information (Article 17) to settlement of disputes (Article 25). Referring to Articles 3.3 and 3.4 of the Minamata Convention, no new mercury mines may be opened on the territory of a member state from the date the Convention came into force for them, and existing mercury mines must be closed no later than 15 years after the Convention entered into force for them. During this period, mercury from the mine may only be used in the manufacture of products containing mercury in accordance with Article 4, in the manufacturing process in accordance with Article 5, or disposed of in accordance with Article 11.

Implementation and challenges of the Minamata Convention on Mercury

The Minamata Convention pushes companies in member states to switch to mercury-free schemes and promotes non-mercury technologies in manufacturing processes. Many countries are gradually phasing out mercury from health-care centers by collecting and replacing medical measuring devices containing mercury such as thermometers and sphygmomanometers. They also provide training to staff regarding risks and actions in case of mercury spills. Indonesia, for example, as part of its commitment to the Minamata Convention, Indonesia has made efforts to reduce the use of mercury in the lamp and battery industry by 374.4 kg and reduce the use of mercury in the energy sector, especially in coal-fired power plants by 710 kg (Triferna & Ruhman, 2021).

The biggest challenge faced by the Minamata Convention comes from Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) sector. In its 2013 Global Mercury Assessment, UNEP reported that environmental mercury emissions can reach up to 8900 tonnes per year, of which 90% consist of anthropogenic emissions from processes such as artisanal gold mining. Mercury is very commonly used to extract gold, but unfortunately the waste is usually dumped in rivers. Artisanal gold mining and small-scale gold mining are generally low-tech mining that rely on individual skills and manual abilities. Because ASGM is an informal sector in remote areas, ASGM often slips from binding regulations and sometimes even involves forced labor of marginalized communities. ASGM problems occur globally. India reports many ASGM activities responsible for up to 115,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) (Sharma et al, 2019). In Latin America and the Caribbean, ASGM is also the sector that is the largest source of mercury emissions and releases (71%) (UNEP, 2014). Strict regulations are needed for this. In addition, it is important to coordinate with the local government to increase outreach to ASGM workers regarding the dangers of mercury. ASGM workers should be educated about alternative gold extraction methods they can use, for example using cyanide.

However, the Minamata Convention on Mercury has a major contribution in creating a safer world by uniting countries around the world. This convention aims to create a world free of mercury in order to protect human health and the health of the planet we live in. Carrying the name Minamata, this convention will always serve as a reminder to us that action and cooperation must be taken to avoid a repeat of past disasters.

Meilisa Anggraeni
Meilisa Anggraeni
Meilisa Anggraeni is currently pursuing her postgraduate education in International Relations program at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. She is interested in peace and human rights studies.