The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted on 22 March 1989 in Basel, Switzerland.The Convention was adopted in response to a public outcry following the discovery, in the 1980s, in Africa and other parts of the developing world of deposits of toxic wastes imported from abroad.
Awakening environmental awareness and corresponding tightening of environmental regulations in the industrialized world in the 1970s and 1980s had led to increasing public resistance to the disposal of hazardous wastes – in accordance with what became known as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome – and to an escalation of disposal costs. This in turn led some operators to seek cheap disposal options for hazardous wastes in Eastern Europe and the developing world, where environmental awareness was much less developed and regulations and enforcement mechanisms were lacking. It was against this background that the Basel Convention was negotiated in the late 1980s, and its thrust at the time of its adoption was to combat the “toxic trade”, as it was termed. The Convention entered into force in 1992.
The overarching objective of the Basel Convention is to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes.
Its scope of application covers a wide range of wastes defined as “hazardous wastes” based on their origin and/or composition and their characteristics, as well as two types of wastes defined as “other wastes” – household waste and incinerator ash.
Aims and provisions
The provisions of the Convention center around the following principal aims:
1.The reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal;
2.The restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management;
3.A regulatory system applying to cases where transboundary movements are permissible.
Prior informed consent
The regulatory system is the cornerstone of the Basel Convention as originally adopted. Based on the concept of prior informed consent, it requires that, before an export may take place, the authorities of the State of export notify the authorities of the prospective States of import and transit, providing them with detailed information on the intended movement. The movement may only proceed if and when all States concerned have given their written consent .
Cooperation between parties
The Basel Convention also provides for cooperation between parties, ranging from exchange of information on issues relevant to the implementation of the Convention to technical assistance, particularly to developing countries .
Criticism of Basel Convention
The Basel Convention has been criticized as having several deficiencies, including vague definitions in critical areas and loopholes which allow extra-treaty bilateral agreements on transfers of waste, thus circumventing the Convention entirely.
The greatest problem of the Basel Convention is that is has no enforcement mechanism; nations who break the requirements of the treaty face no penalties, nor do private companies.
Studies have shown that an average of 25% of the hazardous wastes produced in Europe and North America are sent to places other than their origin for treatment and recycling or ultimate disposal. The transporters, who are generally paid at the beginning of the journey, do not insure the safe delivery of their cargo, and in fact have an economic incentive to “lose” their cargo on the journey to reduce their costs of transportation. Unlawful dumping of wastes at sea is therefore a common practice, as is the tactic of falsifying the transport documents to allow toxic materials to be transported as if they were ordinary and safe materials.
Another tactic used by waste generators, transporters, or brokers to avoid paying the costs of disposal is to classify the hazardous waste materials as “fertilizer” or “roadfill.” There have been several recent egregious attempts at pawning off hazardous wastes on Third World nations under these pretenses.
The Basel Convention has been criticized by some environmentalists as an institutionalization of the waste trade, a move which they fear may lead to an increase in the export trade. Greenpeace and many members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) have called for an outright ban on transboundary shipments of hazardous wastes, but attempting to impose a total ban is not realistic, particularly in the European states where international boundaries are regularly traversed.