At Nairobi meet, India learns about new Obama agenda

February 26th, 2009 - 2:59 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaNew Delhi, Feb 26 (IANS) India last week not only changed its long-standing position against legal restrictions on mercury emissions, but also learnt a valuable lesson in dealing with the new US administration on a diplomatic level.

At the end of four days in Nairobi, 140 countries agreed to start negotiations on a new treaty that will restrict mercury emissions - a move largely determined by the US making a U-turn on its earlier position of opposing legal restrictions on emissions.

Mercury, a heavy metal, affects the human nervous system and damages the liver and kidney. India is one of the largest importers of mercury products.

India, along with China, had to give way in the end, but a senior official, well versed with India’s stand on such issues at international fora, termed it as a “first real confrontation” between India and US on the global stage after the change of US regime.

Curbing human exposure to mercury has been a pet project for President Barack Obama, who had as a senator moved a bill for banning mercury exports from the US by 2013, which turned into law last October.

Indian diplomats were still taken by surprise at the swiftness of the gear-shift in the Kenyan capital, where officials met Feb 16-20 for the Governing Council meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme.

“We didn’t expect the new administration to change the US position within about 15 days,” said the senior official.

India continued to oppose legally-binding limits, but found itself isolated in the last few days of the meeting.

“In the beginning, the G-77 nations were with us, but they soon agreed to having specific restrictions,” he said.

Then China also climbed down - its change of position coinciding with the start of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing as part of her whistle-stop Asia tour, according to the official.

Ultimately, India had to agree to the resolution, finding its isolated position untenable, which paved the way for an international treaty.

“Unlike carbon emissions, mercury has direct, proven health effects. We cannot use the development argument here,” the official said.

Further, that it was a personal agenda for the US president “had to be considered”.

“Ultimately, it was difficult to say ‘no’ to something that the whole world was saying ‘yes’ to,” he said.

While India and US had found themselves on the same side of the mercury issue earlier, they traditionally have had differing views on other environmental issues.

“The Bush Administration had been against any bindings on emissions of any kind. India had not taken that view, but we certainly had used that position during negotiations to our advantage,” the official said.

According to him, the meeting last week was akin to a wake-up call that indicated the Obama Administration could be changing US position on most issues on the international stage.

“It will not be as comfortable as it was for us during the Bush Administration,” the official said.

While the current administration may go for more activist position on climate change and environmental issues, it may not be as willing to open its coffers to implement those proposals for developing countries.

That was another lesson learnt at the Nairobi meeting.

“We had to fight with them to ensure that our concerns were reflected in the terms of reference of the negotiating committee, which essentially refers to financing and technology transfer to poorer countries,” he said.

Not surprisingly, with the current global economic slowdown, financial support was something that richer countries agreed to very reluctantly.

“India has neither the money nor the technology (to check emissions). So we had to battle to ensure that we had access to both.”

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