A Review Conference convened in November 1975 under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) produced the TIR Convention of 1975 that came into force in 1978. Since that time the TIR Convention has proved that it is one of the most successful international transport conventions and is in fact so far the only universal Customs transit system in existence. The idea behind the TIR Convention and its transit regime has formed the basis for many regional transit systems and has thus, directly and indirectly, contributed to the facilitation of international transport, especially international road transport, not only in Europe and the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world, such as Africa and Latin America.
Anyone who has ever travelled on European roads will recognize the familiar blue and white TIR plate borne by thousands of lorries and semi-trailers using the TIR Customs transit system. For the driver, the transport operator and the shipper, this plate stands for fast and efficient international transportation by road.
Work on the TIR transit system started soon after the Second World War under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The first TIR Agreement was concluded in 1949 between a small number of European countries. The success of this limited scheme led to the negotiation of a TIR Convention which was adopted in 1959 by the UNECE Inland Transport Committee and entered into force in 1960. This first TIR Convention was revised in 1975 to take account of practical experience in operating the system and to give effect to technical advances and changing Customs and transportation requirements.
The experience gained in the first 10 to 15 years of operating the system was thus used to make the TIR system more efficient, less complex and at the same time more Customs secure. Another reason why the original TIR system had to be modified was that in the early 1960's a new transport technique emerged: the maritime container. That was followed a little later by the inland container used by the European railways and by the swap-body introduced for improving the efficiency of road/rail transport.
These new combined or multimodal transport techniques necessitated the acceptance of the container, under certain conditions, as a Customs secure loading unit. It meant also that the TIR regime no longer only covered road transport, but was extended to rail, inland waterways and even maritime transport, although at least one part of the total transport operation still has to be made by road.
Upon its entry into force the new Convention terminated and replaced the old Convention of 1959. However, the former Convention is still in force for various reasons, one of which is that one of the Contracting Parties to the old Convention (Japan) has not yet acceded to the TIR Convention of 1975.
The TIR Convention has proved to be one of the most effective international instruments prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). To date, it has 66 Contracting Parties, including the European Community. It covers the whole of Europe and reaches out to North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Countries in Asia have been informed about the facilities of this global Customs transit system and their interest has shown that they may well join the TIR Convention in the not too distant future. Already today, the United States of America and Canada are Contracting Parties as well as Chile and Uruguay in South America (see "Contracting Parties of the TIR Convention, 1975").
The success of the TIR system may also be judged by the number of TIR Carnets distributed and issued every year. Whilst in 1952 only a little over 3,000 TIR Carnets were issued, this number increased steadily reaching 100,000 in 1960, then 800,000 in 1970. During the seventies and eighties the demand for TIR Carnets floated between around 500,000 and 900,000. This can be explained by the enlargement of the European Community which utilizes its own Community Transit System within its territory. Thus, TIR Carnets cannot be used for Customs transit operations within its member countries.
As a result of the expanding East-West European trade, particularly since 1989, and the corresponding tremendous increase in international road transport, the number of TIR Carnets issued, exceeded one million in 1992 and has now reached almost 3.6 million (2006) which represents the start of nearly 10,000 TIR transports every day in more than 50 countries and well over 50,000 TIR border crossing procedures daily. The number of transport companies authorized by national Customs authorities to utilize TIR Carnets amounts to more than 40,000 (see "Number of TIR Carnets issued by IRU to different national associations from 2001 to 2010").
The accession of a number of Central European countries to the European Community in 2004 has, so far, not led to a decrease in the number of TIR transport operations in this part of Europe. At the same time it can be expected that the number of TIR transport operations in and to the countries of the Middle East and Asia will continue to increase in the future.
In substance, the tremendous increase in the use of the TIR Customs transit system can be explained by the special features of the TIR regime which offer transport operators and Customs authorities a simple, flexible, cost-effective and secure Customs regime for the international transport of goods across frontiers.
OBJECTIVE AND ADVANTAGES
Customs transit systems are devised to facilitate to the greatest possible extent the movement of goods under Customs seals in international trade and to provide the required Customs security and guarantees. For such a system to function satisfactorily, it is essential that any formalities involved are neither too burdensome for the Customs officials nor too complex for the transport operators and their agents. Therefore, a balance needs to be struck between the requirements of the Customs authorities on the one hand and those of the transport operators on the other.
Traditionally when goods crossed the territory of one or more States in the course of an international transport of goods by road, the Customs authorities in each State applied national controls and procedures. These varied from State to State, but frequently involved the inspection of the load at each national frontier and the imposition of national security requirements (guarantee, bond, deposit of duty, etc.) to cover the potential duties and taxes at risk while the goods were in transit through each territory. These measures, applied in each country of transit, led to considerable expenses, delays and interferences with international transport.
In an attempt to reduce these difficulties experienced by transport operators and, at the same time, to offer Customs administrations an international system of control replacing traditional national procedures, whilst effectively protecting the revenue of each State through which goods were carried, the TIR system was devised.
(a) Advantages for Customs administrations
As regards Customs control measures at frontiers, the TIR system clearly has advantages for Customs administrations as it reduces the normal requirements of national transit procedures. At the same time the system avoids the need - expensive in manpower and facilities - for physical inspection in countries of transit other than checking seals and the external conditions of the load compartment or container. It also dispenses with the need to operate national guarantees and national systems of documentation.
In addition, advantages arise from the fact that the international transit operation is covered by a single transit document, the TIR Carnet, which reduces the risk of presenting inaccurate information to Customs administrations.
In case of doubt, Customs authorities have the right to inspect the goods under Customs seal at any time and, if necessary, to interrupt the TIR transport and/or to take adequate measures in accordance with national legislation. In view of the strict provisions of the TIR Convention and the interest of all Customs authorities and transport operators to apply these provisions, such interventions should remain exceptional. Customs authorities can therefore reduce routine administrative Customs procedures to a minimum and devote their limited resources to specific control measures based on risk assessment and intelligence information.
The TIR Executive Board (TIRExB), as an inter-governmental organ, ensures that each of the actors in the TIR procedure adequately applies the provisions of the Convention. In case of difficulties in the application of the TIR Convention at the international level, Customs authorities may wish to address the TIRExB for guidance and support. The TIRExB is also at the disposal of all Contracting Parties to coordinate and foster the exchange of intelligence and other information.
(b) Advantages for the transport industry
The advantages of the TIR Convention to commerce and to transport interests are also obvious. Goods may travel across national frontiers with a minimum of interference by Customs administrations. By easing traditional impediments to the international movement of goods, the TIR system encourages the development of international trade. By reducing delays in transit, it enables significant economies to be made in transport costs.
The TIR Convention also provides, through its international guarantee chain, relatively simple access to the required guarantees which are a sine qua non for the transport and trade industry to benefit from the facilities of Customs transit systems.
Finally, in reducing the impediments to international traffic by road caused by Customs controls, it enables exporters and importers to select more easily the form of transport most suitable for their needs.
FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OF THE TIR SYSTEM
(a) World-wide application of the TIR System
The TIR system is promoted under the auspices of the United Nations to make it as widely available as possible for all countries wishing to make use of it. In 1984, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) adopted a Resolution (1984/79) which recommends that countries world-wide examine the possibility of acceding to the Convention and introducing the TIR system. Furthermore, it recommends that international, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and in particular the Regional Commissions of the United Nations, promote the introduction of the TIR system as a universal Customs transit system.
In accordance with this ECOSOC Resolution, activities have been undertaken to promote the application of the TIR Convention beyond the present 66 Contracting Parties. Several regional and sub-regional seminars and workshops have already been organized in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to familiarize Governments, trade and the transport industry with the facilities of the Convention.
Currently work is under way to extend the scope of the TIR system to Asia and to the Middle East. This work is undertaken in particular by the secretariats of the UNECE and the United Nations Economic and Social Commissions for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) and Western Asia (ESCWA) which promote the TIR system as one of the cornerstones for efficient international land transport in Asia and the Middle East. These efforts are supported by various international bodies and banks, such as the European Commission and the World Bank which see the TIR system as an important element in facilitating road transport along the historic Silk route or in the Greater Mekong sub-region in Far-East Asia.
(b) The TIR System and electronic data processing
World-wide, the replacement of paper documents by electronic data processing is an ongoing process which will continue to gain further importance, also for Customs administrations and transport operators. This trend will increasingly affect Customs procedures and the documents used by Customs authorities.
The reasons are that Customs administrations are confronted with an enormous dilemma. On the one hand they are governed by laws which oblige them to collect and account for revenues in an effective and efficient manner and to prevent fraud and smuggling of contraband. On the other hand they are increasingly criticized by trading parties (importers, exporters, transport operators, freight forwarders) for not facilitating the speedy throughput of cargo.
Taking into account the limitations of Customs manpower and the increasingly sophisticated methods of Customs fraud and smuggling, there seems to be no other way than to increase productivity and Customs control by adapting national and international administrative procedures, making use of the latest technologies and electronic data processing.
The Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention have included the computerization of the TIR procedure into Phase III of the TIR revision process. They recognized that computerization of the TIR procedure was inevitable in the light of:
- today's extremely rapid technological developments, based on Internet and Smart Card technologies, particularly affecting international transport and trade;
- the ever increasing need for improved efficiency of Customs procedures and trade practices; and
- the fight against fraudulent activities which must be conducted with the most appropriate and effective means.
Given the large number and the diversified administrative structure of the more than 60 Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention, any computerized system must be able to function in a very decentralized and flexible manner on the basis of only a few internationally accepted standard features, such as the establishment of an international centralized database under Customs control and the management by Customs of data on guarantees. This is a difficult, but challenging task which will have to be realized with an appropriate level of connectivity with the existing TIR related IT systems. But there can be no doubt: The TIR system must be kept in line with the latest developments in electronic data processing techniques which have already and increasingly will change all related Customs, transport and trade activities. If not, the TIR system, particularly the paper-based TIR Carnet, will become an obstacle to efficient international transport and trade and will jeopardize effective national Customs procedures and controls.
This challenge will have to be met by all Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention, by national and international organizations as well as by the transport industry involved.
The TIR system, created more than 50 years ago and the TIR Convention, have proved to be a very effective international Customs transit system and have played an important role in facilitating international trade and transport, primarily within Europe, but more recently also between Europe and neighbouring areas.
With the rapid increase of East-West European traffic and with the emergence of many newly independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the TIR system is today faced with new and, to this extent, unprecedented challenges. At the same time Customs authorities are faced with an unparalleled amount of Customs fraud and smuggling as a result of changing political, economic and social situations in many countries in the region and due to often heavily increasing Customs duties and taxes.
Furthermore, the management and the control of the TIR system pose problems for national Customs authorities which, mainly in newly independent countries, sometimes still have to acquire the necessary experience and often do not have sufficient and adequately trained personnel.
To counter some of these unwanted developments, Governments and other actors in the TIR system sometimes impose unilateral measures, such as the requirement of additional guarantees for TIR transit operations or the exclusion of certain categories of goods which are not in line with the provisions and the spirit of the TIR Convention.
While such measures may provide some temporary relief, they will induce in the long run not only other countries to introduce similar measures, but they will also make international trade and transport more expensive and, eventually, may lead to a total collapse of the TIR transit system - with no viable alternative in sight.
The TIR Convention itself provides already a number of measures to safeguard the legitimate interests of Customs authorities, such as the requirement for escort services, prescription of transit routes and reduced transit times. Other measures may be prepared if Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention so wish.
Stable and long-term solutions can only be found in joint and concerted action by all concerned Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention. The TIR Executive Board (TIRExB) as well as the UNECE and its Working Party on Customs Questions affecting Transport (WP.30) provide a forum for such cooperation and coordination. Experience has shown that solutions to many recently emerged problems in the application of the TIR Convention have been found within the organs and bodies established in the framework of the TIR Convention and the UNECE.
It is the aim of the UNECE and the TIR secretariat to continue to work in this direction and to provide a well-functioning international machinery to further improve cooperation and coordination among Contracting Parties to the TIR Convention and the transport industry. It is essential to continuously improve the legal framework within which the TIR transit system operates and to streamline its operation so that the TIR transit system is always in line with the requirements of the transport industry and of the Customs authorities.
The United Nations, as a universal organization, is the depositary of the TIR Convention and provides the framework and the services to administer and, where necessary, adapt the TIR Convention to changing requirements. Past experience has shown that the TIR Convention, as part of the transport facilitation work undertaken within the UNECE, has served the interests of all concerned, Customs authorities and transport operators alike, and there is every reason to believe that it will continue to do so in the future.