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After several years of negotiations, 139 governments just adopted a new international treaty – the Minamata Convention on Mercury, named after the small Japanese town where mercury dumped by a chemicals factory killed and disabled thousands about half a century ago.

I felt it was a solemn moment when the Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister stepped onto the podium as the first one to sign the treaty, followed by 86 other government representatives. If each of these countries ratifies the treaty, that will mean real progress in the protection of people’s right to health, and the environment.

Mercury is a highly toxic, silvery, liquid metal that is particularly harmful to children. Exposure can cause life-long physical, and intellectual, disability.

A major use of mercury is in small-scale gold mining, where regulation is weak, and children are frequently exposed. Human Rights Watch has documented the harmful use of mercury in small-scale gold mining in Mali, Tanzania, Ghana, and Papua New Guinea, in reports and on film. Child laborers and adults mix mercury into the ground-up ore with their bare hands to bind gold particles, then burn it off to retrieve the gold, breathing in toxic gas. There are an estimated 10 to 15 million artisanal miners worldwide; even more people are affected by polluted water, soil, and air.

Under the Minamata Convention, government action on mercury in mining is no longer a voluntary matter. Governments that ratify the treaty are required to act to eliminate harmful mercury use, promote mercury-free gold processing alternatives, and protect children. New for an environmental treaty, the convention also recognizes the critical role the health sector has to play in addressing mercury exposure.

Now, the Convention must be brought to life. They must sign and ratify it to bring it into force. Most importantly, they must act now to reduce mercury use and exposure–and prevent future Minamatas.

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