Global Mercury Treaty Updates from Punta del Este, Uruguay

Partner organization California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA) has provided the following three reports from the Indigenous People’s Caucus at “INC4” – the fourth session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on Mercury.  This year’s session was held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from June 27 to July 2, 2012.

  1. Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus Opening Statement – June 27, 2012
  2. Intervention on Article 20bis – July 1, 2012
  3. Final Intervention on Article 20bis Health Aspects – July 2, 2012

I. Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus Opening StatementINC4 in Punta del Este, Uruguay – June 27, 2012

Thank you Mr. President.

We thank the Government of Uruguay for hosting this important meeting, and acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

The Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus consists of Indigenous organization representatives from Inuit Circumpolar Council, Island Sustainability Alliance Cook Islands Inc., International Indian Treaty Council, and the California Indian Environmental Alliance.

Indigenous Peoples from all over the world suffer disproportionate impacts from mercury contamination. We are not just stakeholders in this process; we are rights holders and should participate fully at every level of decision-making and implementation. We urge that any reference to “vulnerable populations” in the treaty text includes the phrase “and Indigenous Peoples.”

We have a deep connection with the environment that is reciprocal with the ecosystems around us. Environmental and human health are inseparable. We affirm that the protection of our health, lands, air and water, traditional foods, and the transmission of our cultures and traditional knowledge systems to our future generations are inalienable human rights.

All outcomes and decisions in this process must recognize, uphold, and respect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, including cultural rights, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007. This Declaration was endorsed in the outcome document at the Rio +20 conference recently held in Brazil.

Mercury contamination impacts all Indigenous life-ways and livelihoods, especially health and food. Traditional foods are not only important for our subsistence and health, but also for our social, cultural and spiritual well-being. Many Indigenous Peoples live in remote places where alternative food sources are scarce, and where food insecurity is common. Even low-level exposure to mercury contamination over long periods of time may have considerable health effects. Avoiding our traditional foods or our lands and territories contaminated by mercury is not acceptable and clearly violates our human rights.

There is an urgent need for a global database of information on mercury releases in all environmental media, which is transparent, accountable and accessible, respecting the principle of “right-to-know.” Indigenous Peoples can be an important source of information in this regard, including our traditional knowledge systems. In conclusion, it is of vital importance that Indigenous Peoples be included in the operative treaty text, and that Indigenous Peoples participate fully in all decision-making processes and implementation.

Thank you Mr. President.



II. Intervention on Article 20bis – July 1, 2012

Delivered by the International Indian Treaty Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the California Indian Environmental Alliance

Thank you Mr. President.

We support that this treaty address human health issues related to mercury exposure in a comprehensive way.  The stated goal of this Article is to protect those who are most vulnerable to the health impacts of mercury. Indigenous Peoples are undoubtedly amongst those most vulnerable.

After eight years of debate and a UN Study by Special Rapporteur Madame Erica Daes the International community has accepted the unique identification of “Indigenous Peoples” as members of humankind. This recent inclusion and recognition has not led any others to demand specific reference as they are already included under International
laws and mechanisms. We are recognized by the United Nations as Peoples. Article 20bis should therefore reference not only vulnerable populations, but also specifically reference Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples live in over 70 countries worldwide. As Indigenous Peoples, our diverse cultures and identities, which include the use of our traditional subsistence foods, form an integral part of our lives. Our ways of life, customs and traditions, institutions, customary laws, forms of land use and forms of social organization are usually distinct from those of the dominant population. The Convention must recognize these differences, and aim to ensure that we are protected and taken into account when any measures are being undertaken that may affect us. This is of particular importance regarding health.

This is a similar approach to that of the International Labor Organization, which is specifically mentioned under Article 20bis. Further, the World Health Organization, also mentioned in this Article has a mandate to devote special attention to Indigenous Peoples’ health. This has been fully articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007 by the UN General Assembly and now supported by all countries. The UN Declaration contains articles related to environment, development, subsistence and health of Indigenous Peoples.

Mr. President, we are not advocating for new or special rights for Indigenous Peoples under this instrument. Nor are we advocating for new legal obligations on the part of state parties. We are advocating for a window of opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to fully participate where we are particularly impacted. To use the same language as United Nations instruments and the work of other international organizations, a very simple addition could be made: In Article 20bis (a) and (c), where there is reference to “vulnerable populations”, include the following text: “and indigenous peoples”.

Thank you Mr. President


III. Final Intervention on Article 20bis Health Aspects – July 2, 2012

Thank you Mr. President,


We support the inclusion of Article 20 bis and believe that cooperation between the WHO, ILO, and parties to the mercury convention would create effective synergies in protecting those who are most at risk from the adverse health impacts of mercury. Currently, we are exposed through diet, cultural practices, occupations and contaminated sites.

Approximately 92% of the global fish harvest for general human consumption consists of marine fish (UNDP et al 2003). People who live by subsistence fishing such as indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by methylmercury concentrations in fish and other food items, particularly in marine ecosystems.  

Two terms are used in describing people most at risk from the harms of mercury: “populations at risk” and “vulnerable populations”.

1. “Populations at risk” is a very narrow definition, and does not take into account the changing perception of harm, as well as multiple and chronic exposures. Activities such as precautionary measures, education, and awareness-raising that focus on “populations at risk” will therefore exclude protection for sensitive populations.

2. In contrast, the term “vulnerable populations”is a broader, more inclusive term that better reflects treaty objectives to protect human health from the harm of mercury. 

Indigenous Peoples experience disproportionate impacts and are recognized in other United Nations norms and standards as distinct peoples. Therefore, we must include Indigenous Peoples after every reference to vulnerable populations. For example, in paragraph A in 20bis we suggest “Promote health studies with risk management plans, focusing on the most vulnerable populations AND Indigenous Peoples.”

To fulfill treaty objectives, we must also examine and monitor mercury concentrations in biota, such as fish.  This is because there is not a simple straightforward relationship between mercury deposition and fish mercury concentrations.  Therefore, subsistence fishers and Indigenous Peoples that depend on these resources should be involved in the use and establishment of biomonitoring systems. 

In addition, new scientific understanding of the harms from mercury should be incorporated into biomonitoring assessments and effectiveness evaluations.  This has been done recently for lead to make exposure limits more protective. The same should be done for mercury as new information emerges so that governments can protect populations from harm.

As an example of new scientific technologies, biomonitoring can help identify and track mercury sources for distinguishing mercury isotopes.  This cost-effective approach can help to determine the origin of mercury contamination for specific sites that may be near or far from the source. Understanding these connections will specifically help to improve areas of particular concern for human and environmental health, such as biological mercury hotspots.

In conclusion, the treaty should identify vulnerable populations, specifically mention Indigenous Peoples, develop and implement strategies to encourage collaboration and engagement of biomonitoring, verify the strategies are working, and broadly share experience to increase the effectiveness of treaty implementation.

Thank you for your consideration.