The Clemenceau saga: a small victory in a global battle

Background - 1 March, 2006
She once was the star of the French Navy. Now, after more than two years of legal farce and political tragedy, after a vain voyage of thousands of miles as an unwanted ghost ship, the former aircraft carrier The Clemenceau has now been ordered to turn around and head back to France.

Woman filtering asbestos into powder in workshop outside the shipbreaking yards.

Like hundreds of other similar ships nearing the end of their workinglives, The Clemenceau contains a deadly cocktail of toxic materials -asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and heavy metals. She wasdestined to be dismantled in India's Alang shipbreaking yard under verypoor environmental and working conditions. Every year, dozens ofworkers die or are injured in horrific industrial accidents in these'dumping grounds' of the world. Others suffer from fatal anddebilitating diseases such as cancers, caused by working virtuallyunprotected amidst the toxic substances with which the ships are laden.In France, as in any other developed country, these working conditionswould be outlawed, and those suffering from occupational-relatedmedical conditions would be compensated. In Alang, those workers whoare dying as a result of these terrible working conditions are not evenregistered.

It is a sad reflection of the state of our world that those workerstaken on by the ship-breaking yards of India and elsewhere in thedeveloping world are so economically disempowered that they are forcedto put their lives at risk to work in such conditions. What is evensadder is that developed nations such as France are prepared to sendtoxic wrecks across the world to have them dismantled cheaply, knowingthe deadly contents of these ships and their likely environmental andhuman impact.

Throughout the futile last voyage of the Clemenceau, we have kept upthe pressure on both French and Indian governments, through dialogueand direct action. Our protestors have boarded the ship and chainedthemselves to the vessel's mast. In India, our campaigners engaged withministers, the Supreme Court and unions, and also took to the streetsto protest. Were it not for this kind of international pressure, theClemenceau would still be quietly continuing to the ship-breaking yardsof Alang to be disposed of on the cheap.

The decision by the French government to recall the Clemenceau was nota result of a sudden realisation of moral responsibility, or an act ofenvironmental altruism. They were forced to recall the Clemenceaubecause its export to India is illegal under the Basel convention.Established in 1989 by 177 countries, including France and India, theconvention promised to protect the environment and citizens ofdeveloping countries by banning the export of hazardous waste to placesthat are not able to manage them properly. We are not against thedivision of labour in the global market - industries such asship-breaking offer a vital income to hundreds of thousands of workersthroughout the world. Indeed, dismantling and re-using ships is anexample of recycling on a grand scale - it should and must beencouraged.

This case is an example of a problem that the whole world needs toface. There are thousands of ships like the Clemenceau laden with evengreater amounts of deadly toxic materials, awaiting break-up. But it isnot just a problem for the ship-breaking industry. Hundreds of millionsof everyday products - from mobile phones to computers and TVs -containing a huge range of toxic substances, are being dumped inmassive quantities on communities who have no other economic choicethan to put themselves and their environment at risk by dismantling andrecycling them. Every time someone in the developed world throws away amobile phone, computer or TV they are expecting someone else to cleanup the mess, irrespective of the real human and environmental cost -millions of 'mini Clemenceaus' are happening every day.

All manufacturing industries - from ship-building to electronics andconsumer goods - must now be held responsible for removing the toxinsin their products. They cannot be allowed to dodge their moral andenvironmental responsibility to put profit first and simply allowingtheir toxic waste to be dumped on the cheap refuse sites of the world.

If there is one thing we should learn from the case of the Clemenceauit is that we must continue the fight against toxins in ourenvironment, whether it is a warship or a mobile phone. Otherwise werun the risk of finally winning the battle to persuade the world torecycle what it uses and discards, only to poison our environment withthe by-products.

Gerd Leipold


Executive Director, Greenpeace International