Address Global Threat of Poisonous, Polluting Substance
June 20, 2013
Mercury poisoning is an age-old scourge. Ratification of the Minamata Convention will be is an important milestone toward ensuring that all people are protected from its devastating effects.
Jane Cohen, a researcher in the Health and Human Rights Division

(New York)- Governments around the world should sign and ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and take immediate steps to reduce mercury pollution, Human Rights Watch said today in letters to environment ministers around the globe. Human Rights Watch sent its letters to countries with artisanal gold mining and to all others, including donor countries, in advance of a diplomatic conference for countries to sign the international treaty, from October 7 to 11, 2013, in Japan. For the treaty to go into force, at least 50 countries must sign.

Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal that attacks the central nervous system and remains in the environment for long periods of time. Communities are exposed to the effects of mercury through air, soil, and water. Artisanal gold mining uses the largest amount of mercury worldwide. Every day millions of adult and child gold miners around the world work with mercury, putting them at risk of long-term disability and death

“Mercury poisoning is an age-old scourge,” said Jane Cohen, a researcher in the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Ratification of the Minamata Convention will be is an important milestone toward ensuring that all people are protected from its devastating effects.”

On January 19, 2013, more than 140 countries agreed to the text of the Minamata Convention. The treaty is named for one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters in history, which killed over 900 people in Japan since 1956. It obligates governments to protect their citizens from mercury exposure. The treaty targets a number of harmful mercury-related products and processes.

The treaty addresses the effects of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, an estimated 15 million artisanal gold miners – including many children – use mercury to separate the gold from the ore, by burning a toxic gold-mercury amalgam. Human Rights Watch has documented the use of mercury by child laborers, and non-existent or inadequate measures by governments to prevent, test, and treat mercury-related conditions in mining areas.

The Minamata Convention requires ratifying governments to develop mandatory national action plans with measures to eliminate the most harmful forms of mercury use, promote mercury free mining methods, protect children and women of childbearing age from mercury exposure, and take steps to improve the health of miners.

Human Rights Watch urged governments in countries with artisanal gold mining to take immediate action to address the harmful effects of mercury even before the treaty goes into effect, and donor countries to assist such efforts financially and with technical support.

Governments should:

·       Take action to end child labor in artisanal gold mining;

·       Train health workers about the effects of mercury;

·       Enhance health system capacity to test and treat mercury-related conditions; and

·       Monitor mercury levels of people in artisanal mining communities, including children.

Governments should not wait until the treaty enters into force to protect the health of their citizens,” Cohen said. “They should demonstrate their commitment to the Minamata Covention by taking action now.”