About the Convention
Since the early 1990s the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has concentrated its efforts on preventing industrial accidents and especially their transboundary effects in its region, which stretches from Canada and the United States of America in the west to the Russian Federation in the east. Its work led to the adoption of the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on 17 March 1992. It was signed by 26 UNECE member countries and the European Union and entered into force on 19 April 2000.
The Convention aims at protecting human beings and the environment against industrial accidents by preventing such accidents as far as possible, by reducing their frequency and severity and by mitigating their effects. It promotes active international cooperation between the contracting Parties, before, during and after an industrial accident.
Industrial operations may involve substances that do not usually represent a great threat to our health or our environment but are nevertheless potentially hazardous. Even the safest plant is never totally risk-free. In Europe, the well-publicized industrial accidents at Seveso in Italy in 1976 and Basel in Switzerland ten years later have brought this message home to us.
Both accidents wreaked havoc with the environment. In Seveso, the release of dioxin contaminated the surrounding area and poisoned local residents. In Basel, the pollution of the Rhine -- in France and Germany, as well as in Switzerland -- following a fire at a chemical warehouse killed thousands of fish. As a result, risk assessment and accident prevention have received much more attention in the past two decades.
Industry itself has been trying to make its operations safer. But these two accidents have made the international community sit up and take notice as well. For instance, the Seveso accident prompted the Council of the European Union to adopt the first piece of multilateral legislation to prevent and control such accidents, the so-called Seveso Directive (82/501/EEC), in 1982.
In the meantime its scope was broadened and in December 1996 the original Seveso Directive was replaced by Council Directive (96/82/EC) on the control of major-accident hazards - also known as the Seveso II Directive. It has been in force since 3 February 1999.
However, in January 2000, another industrial accident in Romania, with severe transboundary effects, made clear that operations involving hazardous substances may still pose a serious threat to our common environment. A mining company in Baia Mare in northern Romania accidentally spilled over 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-polluted water into the Lapus River. Within two days, the polluted water reached the Tisza, one of Hungary's largest rivers.
Not only Hungary's environment, but also that of the Danube's other downstream countries were affected. Their fish stocks were wiped out and their water supplies were threatened. The restoration of the environment will take a long time and will not be reached without international cooperation and assistance. This incident also showed that accidental water pollution can have far-reaching transboundary effects even if it happens at a location far from any international border.
Although the courses of rivers are not limited by any international border, the prevention of industrial accidents will continue to be a major challenge. Industrial accidents can be prevented and their impact on transboundary waters can be limited by strengthening the application of both this Convention and the UN/ECE Convention on Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.
Pending the entry into force, work aimed at implementing the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents has been carried out by its Signatories within the framework of the Committee on Environmental Policy. Following the Convention's entry into force, the Conference of the Parties was constituted as the governing body at its first meeting on 22-24 November 2000. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe carries out the secretariat functions for the Convention.
At its first meeting, the Conference of the Parties took a number of important decisions facilitating the Convention's implementation and defining the priorities of work within its framework in the years ahead. One of the priority tasks is to enlarge the scope of the Convention's application to the entire UN/ECE region as soon as possible.
The Parties agreed on the format and procedures for reporting on the implementation of the Convention and set up a Working Group on Implementation to monitor this process. They also agreed to continue work on the prevention of accidental water pollution.
The Parties to the Convention also recognized the shortcomings of existing international civil liability instruments. In this context, they stressed the need for an appropriate regime, including a legally binding instrument, in the UN/ECE region on civil liability for damage caused by hazardous activities within the scope of this Convention and that on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.
A joint special session of the governing bodies of the two Conventions was held on 2-3 July 2001 and decided that a intergovernmental negotiation process should be entered into aimed at adopting a legally binding instrument on civil liability for transboundary damage caused by hazardous activities, within the scope of both Conventions. To his end, they established an open-ended intergovernmental Working Group.
The Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents is part of a pan-European legal framework to protect our environment and encourage sustainable development that has been negotiated by governments within the UN/ECE in response to regional challenges. Apart from this Convention , the framework also consists of four other multilateral agreements:
- Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution and its eight Protocols;
- Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes and its Protocol on Water and Health;
- Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context; and
- Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters
The aim of the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents is to help its Parties to prevent industrial accidents that can have transboundary effects, to prepare for them and to respond to them. The Convention also encourages its Parties to help each other in the event of such an accident, to cooperate on research and development, and to share information and technology.
Since it is better to be safe than sorry, the Convention spells out what its Parties have to do to reduce the risk and prevent industrial accidents to the extent possible. First, they should identify the hazardous operations that take place within their borders but could have an effect abroad if an accident were to occur.
The Conference of the Parties, at its first meeting, adopted guidelines to facilitate this process. Once the Parties have drawn up a list of these operations, they should inform all the other Parties that could be affected and consult them. New projects should be sited in areas where the risks are minimal and any decision to allow a project to go ahead should take account of the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. Past industrial accidents will be reported and analyzed so that lessons can be learnt from them in order to be able to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future. The Parties approved the terms of reference for cooperation between the UN/ECE secretariat and the European Commission's Major Accident Hazards Bureau in this respect.
Yet, no matter how stringent the safety standards, accidents will occur and countries must be prepared to deal with their consequences. The Convention therefore also outlines how Parties can maintain a high level of preparedness to respond to an industrial accident, especially if its effects spill over into another country. Hazardous operations must have on-site and off-site contingency plans. If several Parties might be affected by a hazardous operation, they are expected to get together to try to make their plans compatible or even draw up joint off-site contingency plans.
The local residents should be informed about what is going on. The public should also have a say in the setting-up of prevention and preparedness measures and have access to administrative and judicial proceedings if its views are disregarded. In this context, the provisions of the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters will also prove useful.
If an industrial accident does occur, the Convention expects the Parties to take effective steps to minimize its effects, including those of a transboundary nature. If several countries are affected by the accident, they should work together to ease its effects. They should also help one another if asked to do so .
To respond effectively and in a coordinated way to an industrial accident, Parties must be informed as soon as possible, since time is of the essence. The Convention consequently calls on Parties to set up special notification systems . The UN/ECE Industrial Accident Notification System has been developed with this in mind and accepted by the Conference of the Parties. It includes forms for giving early warning, providing information and requesting assistance. This system makes it easier for a country where an industrial accident has taken place to notify all the others that could be affected and to give them the information they need to fight its possible effects.
Since 2008, the IAN Systen has been operated through an internet application.
Competent authorities and points of contact
Each Party must designate or set up authorities specifically to deal with industrial accidents, following the Convention's entry into force. Other UN/ECE member countries have nominated focal points .
According to the Convention, Parties must also designate points of contact, to whom industrial accident notifications and requests for assistance must be addressed. The network of points of contact now comprises 35 countries and the European Union. The secretariat regularly updates this list; however, access to it is restricted.