"Chirac's decision is a massive, handsome victory for the environmental movement and for the votaries of global justice," says Madhumita Dutta of the voluntary Corporate Accountability Desk in Delhi, one of many environmental groups which campaigns against the dumping of discarded ships in India. "We feel vindicated in our long struggle to prevent the North's poisonous wastes from being dumped on the South's poor and underprivileged citizens."
Chirac's decision follows a ruling by a French high judicial authority, the council of state, which ordered suspended the towing of the Clemenceau to India and asked a trial court in France to reconsider its judgment allowing the ship to proceed to India. It also precedes Chirac's visit to India next Monday.
The decommissioned aircraft carrier contains asbestos, estimated at between 45 tons and 1,000 tons, and other toxic substances including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury.
The French government recently sold the ship to a private company, SDIC, insisting that the vessel's dumping is permissible under the Basel Convention because it is "war material." Environmentalists in both France and India argued that such exceptions are impermissible under international law.
The Clemenceau case "is a spectacular instance of monumental hypocrisy on the part of the French government," argues Ravi Agarwal of Toxic Links, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization. "France has banned asbestos domestically. It recently won a case in the World Trade Organization against asbestos exports from Canada. But it has had no compunctions in claiming that it could legitimately export tons of asbestos to India."
No less hypocritical has been the Indian government, which pays lip service to the Basel Convention, but wants toxic wastes from the industrialized countries to be dumped in Alang, the world's largest, and most infamous, ship-breaking yard.
Last Monday, India's Supreme Court refused to halt the entry of the Clemenceau into Indian waters, and ordered that a committee of former Indian armed forces officials be constituted to evaluate the amount of asbestos still remaining on board the condemned ship.
The Supreme Court also issued a gag order against public comment on the merits of the Clemenceau case, upsetting Indian media.
The Hindu newspaper said: "The Supreme Court's order runs counter to the tendency of courts the world over to allow greater latitude for the discussion of matters of wide public interest and concern. In the Clemenceau affair, the debates extend far beyond the merely legal. Issues of health and safety of workers, good business ethics, political morality, and international relations have transformed the episode into a matter of widespread public concern
"To consider a discussion of such issues contempt of court because of the pending litigation and to resort to prior restraint on any publication would do incalculable harm to the democratic fabric," added the newspaper.
France's decision to recall the ship seems calculated to avoid further embarrassment on an issue that had pitted the European Union against Paris. The EU recently announced that it was investigating the Clemenceau case and considering instituting legal proceedings against France.
A recent survey showed that 68 percent of the French public is opposed to the dismantling of the toxic ship in India. And an independent opinion poll in India, commissioned by Greenpeace-India, says 70 percent of Indians oppose the dumping of the aircraft carrier.
"This was a clear case of France violating the Basel Convention," says Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace-India's toxic campaigner. "It holds an object lesson for the toxic waste exporting and importing lobbies both North and South. The French government, under the pressure of public opinion, has appealed for greater 'decontamination facilities' to be built in France. This is a triumph for the causes of rule of law and environmental justice."
The Clemenceau, which left the French port of Toulon on Dec. 31, will now be towed back to France around the Cape of Good Hope.
The Clemenceau case was a litmus test for India. Had it been allowed to enter Indian waters and be dismantled, that would have set a major precedent for other Northern decommissioned warships. More than 1,000 such warships, 400 of them from the United States, are waiting to be broken up.
Although the Clemenceau was an open-and-shut case from the standpoint of international law and the Indian Supreme Court's rulings, the Indian government balked.
Astonishingly, the French ambassador to India admitted that the ship carries a large amount of asbestos, but disingenuously offered to take the asbestos back to France.
"This offer was appalling," says Agarwal. "The real hazard lies in pulling out the asbestos in India, which would expose workers to terrible risks of cancer and incurable lung diseases. It makes no sense to offer to repatriate the toxic stuff after people have already been harmed in India."
The Clemenceau case exposes serious flaws in the Indian regulatory system on toxic wastes. India has become a dumping ground for a whole range of hazardous substances imported from the West. But it has failed to develop any mechanisms for preventing dumping.
Environmentalists hope that the recall of the ship will encourage the government to institute effective checks and balances to prevent the poisoning of the public and occupational workers. One source of hope lies in the broad civil society mobilization against waste dumping, including major Indian trade unions, anti-toxic trade campaigners and the growing Green movement.
The Clemenceau was decommissioned nine years ago. In 2001, the French government tried to sink it as an artificial reef in the Mediterranean, but failed. France also tried sending the ship to Greece, Turkey and Spain.
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February 16, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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