Two weeks after a gas leak claimed more than 2,000 lives in India, the United States has reaffirmed its opposition to an international effort to provide developing nations with more information about hazardous chemical products.
In a United Nations committee meeting this week, the United States cast the only negative vote on a resolution calling for a comprehensive list of consumer products, pesticides, drugs and industrial chemicals that have been banned or restricted in at least one country. The resolution was approved Tuesday by a vote of 126 to 1.
The action affirms a stance the United States took in 1982, when it was the only nation among 147 to vote against a U.N. initiative to prohibit the export of hazardous products without the knowledge and consent of the recipient country. U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick argued that the measure was an undesirable restraint on free trade.
But the latest vote comes at a time when international attention is focused on the problem of chemical hazards in developing nations, prompted by an industrial accident that sent clouds of deadly gas through a shantytown adjacent to a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.
Moreover, the U.S. position came as a surprise to the measure's sponsors, who had agreed to tailor the language of the resolution to meet American objections that the information on the list could be "misleading."
"The United States changed its position in 48 hours," said Venezuelan Minister Oscar de Rojas, whose nation cosponsored the resolution. According to de Rojas, U.S. representatives had agreed to the language a week ago Friday, after a week of intensive negotiations.
"On Monday, we got word that their instructions had been changed," he said. "It was quite a shock."
Faced with certain U.S. opposition, de Rojas said, the resolution's 18 sponsors "spent the rest of the afternoon drafting a new resolution that deleted all the concerns of the United States."
The resolution was pushed by Third World countries concerned that companies in industrialized nations are using international markets to "dump" products that have been banned or restricted at home.
While the measure is expected to win approval by the General Assembly next week despite U.S. opposition, several public-interest organizations said the U.S. action will diminish the effectiveness of the list.
"It means that the United States will continue to not cooperate in updating this information," said Karim Ahmed, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
While an earlier version of the list contains information on products and substances restricted in the United States, Ahmed said the information was provided "indirectly" from private sources.
"The United States has never provided formally any information on banned products, pesticides or pharmaceuticals," Ahmed said. "Basically, what we're saying is if you won't play by our rules, we'll take our marbles and go home."
De Rojas said the list, which will cost about $90,000 a year to produce, is designed to be a single reference document on international actions to restrict, ban or disapprove a variety of pesticides, pharmaceutical and consumer products.
"The whole idea is that all the information would be in this one list," he said. "It is convenient and useful to have it under one cover."