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A Toxics-Free Future


Science-Policy Panel: What Happened at OEWG-2

In March 2022, governments at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) decided that a Science-Policy Panel (SPP) should be established to contribute to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution. An ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG) began in 2023 with the task of preparing proposals for this panel with an aim to establish the panel by the end of 2024.

IPEN has engaged in science-to-policy discussions under the BRS and Minamata Conventions, SAICM, and UNEA for many years, and in December 2023, an IPEN team participated in the second session of the OEWG (OEWG-2). We advocate for science-based policies founded on the precautionary principle, which emphasizes preemptive protective action in the face of scientific uncertainty and risk toward environment and health, the industries’ duty to disclose information, the polluter pays principle, and  the right of access to information

While OEWG-1 focused on defining the SPP, OEWG-2 aimed to review and gather revisions to the skeleton outline for the set-up of the Panel developed by the UNEP SPP Secretariat. Building on prior knowledge, this outline was modeled after frameworks from comparable existing panels—the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Discussion of the outline was divided into four subgroups for negotiation based on assigned topics, contact groups 1 – 4, covering: (1) function, operating principles, and conflict of interest; (2) institutional arrangements and relationships with key stakeholders; (3) work-related processes and procedures of the SPP; and (4) determining intersessional work. However, the bulk of this meeting focused on issue areas concerning contact groups 1 and 2.

Key Points:

-        OEWG-2 collated all suggestions to the skeleton proposal without removals or edits, so OEWG-3 will focus heavily on modification, review, and finalization of text.

-        The role and rights of civil society within the SPP’s proposed subsidiary bodies will be a major discussion point at OEWG-3.

-        Development of the conflict of interest policy was contentious and further discussions are needed to ensure its strength and effectiveness.

Summary Overview:

The draft SPP institutional set-up consists of a Plenary as governing body, a Bureau, and a Secretariat. The draft text to be discussed further at OEWG includes the following potential subsidiary bodies:

  • an interdisciplinary expert committee, focused on the scientific and technical issues;    
  • a policy committee to provide policy guidance to the SPP;
  • a conflict of interest committee; 
  • a prospective error analysis committee; 
  • a committee on capacity building; and 
  • a technical support unit to coordinate and support work of taskforces or expert groups. 

The level of participation of civil society within these outlined committees will be a key point of discussion at the next session in June.

Proposed operating principles of the SPP include:

  • scientific independence and transparency,
  • a focus on prevention,
  • incorporation of a human rights and precautionary approach, and
  • promotion of a safe and healthy work environment.

There was general agreement that the SPP would: establish financing for itself through a voluntary trust fund which would accept funds from governments and various organizations such as industry, be permitted to enter strategic partnerships, and be periodically evaluated for operational effectiveness and impact.

However, the purpose of the capacity-building function within the SPP and the development of the panel’s conflict of interest policy generated lengthy discussion and disagreement. No compromises were reached between proposed capacity-building definitions from Africa and the EU. The development of the conflict of interest policy was contentious and further complicated by procedural difficulties: Contact Group 1 agreed that during intersessional work they would solicit written submissions on approaches to the policy, but Contact Group 4 was charged with determining the intersessional agenda and took the unusual step of blocking the plan to solicit proposals for the policy.

Delegates will need determine the function and form of the SPP's conflict of interest policy—both the IPBES and IPCC and other bodies such as the Stockholm Convention’s POPs Review Committee have their own policies. Weaknesses in policies have, in the past, allowed for troubling conflicts to arise within panels when actions were seen as being motivated, even indirectly, by outside incentives. Current suggestions for the conflict of interest policy are limited to “significant and relevant” financial and nonfinancial disclosures only. It is IPEN’s position that a more robust policy should strike this language to preserve the integrity of SPP’s work as all conflicts among the expert panelists should be made public since this could inform the chemicals selected for review and influence recommendations resulting from evaluations.

OEWG-2 concluded with an outlining of five annexes for further development of the SPP to be addressed in intersessional work and at OEWG-3:

  • Annex 1: rules of procedure;
  • Annex 2: financial rules and procedures;
  • Annex 3: process for determining the SPP’s work programme and priorities;
  • Annex 4: procedures for the preparation and clearance of SPP deliverables; and
  • Annex 5: conflict of interest.

Looking Ahead to OEWG-3:

Ahead of the third session in June, the SPP OEWG Secretariat have been directed to prepare draft text on Annexes 1- 4, revise the conflict of interest form and update SPP’s procedures for receiving and prioritizing work based on the second session’s discussions, prepare proposals for interim work arrangements to be considered at OEWG-3, prepare an information document to facilitate understanding on financial arrangements, facilitate regional consultations, prepare summary views on the capacity-building functions of the SPP, and present webinars on both capacity-building and the documents prepared by the Secretariat for OEWG-3.

OEWG-3 will convene in June 2024 with a goal to finalize text with the ambition of calling an intergovernmental meeting to establish the SPP by the end of 2024.