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Victory: Toxic warship Clemenceau turned back to France!

France finally accepts responsibility for its toxic mess

Feature story - 15 February, 2006
French President Chirac has announced a dramatic recall of the asbestos-laden warship Clemenceau -- it will be turning around and going back to France. Our actions, emails to Chirac and an embarrassing international scandal left France with little choice but to abandon the misguided attempt to dump its own toxic mess on India.

French plans to dump the toxic laden warship were finally scuppered by protests in France, India and an embrassing international scandal.

"This is a victory for international law, a victory for Indian workers, and a victory for workers all across Asia" said Pascal Husting, Greenpeace France Executive Director. "In today's globalised world it is vital that nations, such as France and India, co-operate to uphold global justice and not shamelessly pass on their responsibility to those in vulnerable areas of the planet".

Back in December we highlighted France's attempts to dump an old warship laden with toxics like deadly asbestos on India. France didn't want to deal with its own toxic mess - despite our actions to block the departure of the Clemenceau from the French port of Toulon. We said it was wrong for France to dump a 27,000-ton warship full of asbestos, PCBs, lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals in India to be broken up by hand in a scrapyard where impoverished workers are injured and die every day. France insisted it was right and sent the ship to India anyway.

We weren't going to let them off that easily. In January we reboarded the warship in the Mediterranean and called on Egypt to block the passage of the ship. The French government intervened at the highest level to ensure the ship could continue to head to the ship-breaking beaches of India.

Meanwhile in India there was a growing media and public scandal.

Greenpeace and our anti-asbestos allies launched lawsuits in both the French and Indian courts, and India ordered the warship to stay out of Indian waters pending a final ruling. Online activists around the world were peppering the French government with emails demanding the ship return to France. Still France kept the asbestos ship steaming towards India.

As the Indian Government dithered and the French Government stubbornly insisted on the dumping plan, media interest intensified and levels of public anger in India and France increased with every day the ship continued to sail head-on into the winds of public opposition.

The decision of the French supreme court that Greenpeace was right came just a few days before a planned state visit to India by President Chirac, who announced that the warship would be turned around and head back to France. Domestic heat over the scandal had intensified last week when the French Defence Ministry declared that it could not account for about 30 tonnes of asbestos that was supposed to be aboard the ship.

The case of the Clemenceau has become a symbol of the moral injustice of rich countries dumping their toxic waste on poorer countries. Having tried and failed to offload the ship to other countries, France has finally been forced to clean up a toxic mess of its own making.

While we savour this victory and the return of the Clemenceau to France it is just a poster child for a wider problem. Every year a vast decrepit armada bearing a dangerous cargo of toxic substances, asbestos, PCBs and heavy metals, ends up in ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan, where they are cut up in the crudest of fashions, taking a huge toll on human health and the local environment. Shipbreaking is one of the most visible forms of the trade in toxic waste that ends up dumped in developing countries -- but that trade is also made up of smaller, more day-to-day items like phones, computer parts, and portable electronics.

We believe that rich governments should look at the precedent of the Clemenceau case and take action to reduce the toxic wastes they produce, and to stop the dumping of toxic waste in all forms on poor countries. Only effective action will prevent another Clemenceau-style scandal.

What are the implications of this high profile case in the battle against toxic trade?

You can read more about shipbreaking and the solutions to the problem here.

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