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Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 10.2 (2003) 113-156

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Lessons from Stockholm:
Evaluating the Global Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

Andrew J. Yoder*


On May 22, 2001, representatives from over 120 countries signed a new treaty in Stockholm, Sweden, regulating the "dirty dozen" persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—some of the most dangerous chemicals in the world. 1 POPs are hardy, toxic chemicals that persist in the environment, wreaking biological havoc in animals and people, to an extent not yet completely understood by scientists. The Stockholm Convention—the first global agreement to seek to ban an entire class of chemicals because of their effects on human health—calls for immediate or long-term elimination of twelve highly toxic chemicals, including PCBs, DDT, and dioxins. 2 This treaty promises to be one of the main environmental achievements in the decade following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, articulating principles for a less toxic world, including release prevention, reduction of toxic stockpiles, use of less-dangerous substitutes, and the need for precaution in dealing with toxics generally. 3 The POPs Convention also takes a proactive approach to toxics management, focusing on elimination of pesticides and other POPs at their source, rather than through "end-of-the-pipe" controls frequently employed by other environmental statutes and treaties. Particularly remarkable is the broad support the treaty has enjoyed among governments, public health officials, environmentalists, and affected industries.

The success of the POPs negotiations, especially in light of the strong debate over certain portions of the treaty text, is encouraging and promises success for [End Page 113] the regime at the implementation stage. The way that negotiators resolved their differences and reached consensus at Stockholm holds lessons not only for future toxics treaties, but also for multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) generally. This paper focuses on the story of the POPs negotiations, the treaty they generated, and the lessons that can be learned from that experience. In Part II, I present the problem of persistent organic pollutants, discussing their global impacts on human and animal health, particularly on women and young children. In Part III, I discuss the growth of international concern over POPs, spurred by research into endocrine disruption and other health effects, and the way that this awareness developed into a mandate to construct a global POPs treaty. In Part IV, I discuss tensions inherent in environmental treaty negotiations, examine the negotiating stages of the POPs treaty process, and highlight important debates between participants. In Part V, I examine factors that suggest the likely success of the POPs treaty, focusing on aspects of the negotiation process that apply broadly in other global, environmental contexts, and conclude that the Stockholm Convention teaches important lessons about effective environmental treaty development.

I. The Emerging Problem of Persistent Organic Pollutants

Scientists have been concerned about the effects of persistent organic pollutants for many years. After World War II, Americans became concerned over increased domestic pesticide use, the extremely toxic nature of these chemicals, and the scale on which they were being used. 4 In 1962, Rachel Carson gave shape and substance to these apprehensions with Silent Spring, 5 an early call to heed the effects of synthetic pesticides. Employing a style that would typify environmental advocacy for years to come, Carson told a story of a countryside silenced by invisible, poisonous pesticides, providing the impetus for much of the environmental legislation enacted in the 1970s. 6 This influential story instilled awareness and galvanized public opinion in the United States 7 through graphic [End Page 114] descriptions of DDT's effects upon birds of prey, 8 and eventually led the federal government to ban domestic use of the pesticide. 9

During this era, accumulation of toxic substances in the Great Lakes aquatic system and negative health impacts in wildlife species brought the subject home for many Americans who had been skeptical of Carson's strong warnings. 10 Officials in the first Bush Administration soon came to understand the fundamental danger posed by the levels of toxic exposure experienced by Americans. 11 Great...


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