20 years
The Bhopal Memory Project

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20 Years Later: The Future of Bhopal

Conference proposed for Winter 2004

The Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, during which poisonous methyl isocyanate leaked from a holding tank at a Union Carbide Corporation pesticide facility in India, transformed the plausible into the predictable: catastrophic chemical disasters, causing thousands of deaths and immense suffering could happen, in any place, at any time. While the international impact of the disaster on chemical regulation and corporate image was immediate and is enduring, questions of justice and rehabilitation for the survivors have barely advanced in the ensuing twenty years. Although the court case against the Union Carbide corporation was settled in 1989 with the Indian government, though it was thrown out of the US courts, none of those charged with criminal liability have faced trial nor has anyone ever assumed responsibility for the accident. There is still no comprehensive system of care for the survivors, death, disease and secondary genetic damage continue unabated, and continuing contamination and poverty conspire to compound the suffering and the unresolved nature of the issue.

As exposure to environmental and chemical hazards increasingly becomes a condition of poverty globally, the Bhopal disaster has become emblematic of the inadequacies not just our international legal, criminal and regulatory systems, but also of the existing discourses of human rights and environmentalism. Was Bhopal an environmental catastrophe or a human rights violation? Does the responsibility lie internationally or locally? Governmentally or corporately? If the effects of a chemical are unknown, who is responsible for proving them, and is it indeed possible to reach "full and final" conclusions about them? What is the responsibility of government and of humanitarian organizations, who have often seemed to pass over Bhopal because it does not quite fall within their mandate—it is not exactly a natural disaster, a human rights violation, an environmental contamination case, or a question of poverty.

After 20 years of neglect, Bhopal still offers the opportunity to radically re-think and re-work the systems that are not yet adequate to deal with the coming challenges of this century, and to support a community of people who, now more than ever, deserve justice. Indeed, it is imperative to strategize a brighter future for survivors of Bhopal and the international systems that have failed them—because they are only among the first, not the last, hybrid victims of our technological and increasingly corporatized world order.

20 Years Later: The Future of Bhopal conference has to primary aims. The first is to reset the history of the event as one that began rather than ended on the morning of December 3, 1984. The second is to re-open the question of Bhopal and "Bhopals" to a new generation of health, human rights, law and policy experts, and to ask about the possible futures for Bhopal. Not only because they deserve a brighter one, but also because it everyone's future may depend on their access to justice.

Schedule (proposed)

Thursday: The Case for Bhopal

  • 4–5pm, Registration
  • 5–6pm, Why Bhopal, why now?
  • 7–8pm, Updates: legal and health
  • 8–10pm, Screening of Case No. 98CIV by Ilan Ziv

Friday: Bhopal 20 Years Later

  • 10–12pm, Community health and the right to medical knowledge
  • Panel:
  • 12–1pm, Lunch
  • 1–3pm, Bhopal and the limits of law: imagining political alternatives
  • 3:30–5:30pm, Gas survivor, gas citizen: activism and change in and for Bhopal
  • Panel:
  • 5:30–7pm, Dinner
  • 7–9pm, Moral responsibility, corporate responsibility
  • Panel:

Saturday: The Future of Bhopal

  • 10–12pm, Human Rights, Environmental rights
  • Panel:
  • 12–1pm, Lunch
  • 2–4pm, Roundtable: the Future of Bhopal—conversation and strategy session
  • all participants
  • 4pm, wrap-up, International Medical Commission on Bhopal

An educational initiative of the Human Rights Project at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

The Bhopal Memory Project Bard Human Rights Project