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Legal measures to prevent industrial accidents

by Sergiusz Ludwiczak

International treaties Industrial operations may involve substances that do not usually represent a major threat to our health or environment but are nevertheless potentially hazardous. Industry itself has been trying to make its operations safer, but even the safest plant is never totally risk-free.

In the early 1990s, following industrial accidents at Seveso in Italy and Schweizerhalle in Switzerland, UNECE concentrated on preventing such occurrences and especially their transboundary effects in the region. Its work led to the adoption of the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents in 1992.

The convention aims to protect people and the environment against industrial accidents. It seeks to prevent them altogether as much as possible, reduce their frequency and severity, and mitigate their effects. It promotes active international cooperation between contracting parties, before, during and after industrial accidents. Thirty-two UNECE member countries and the European Community are currently parties to the convention.

The Baia Mare industrial accident in Romania in 2000, with severe transboundary effects, demonstrated that operations involving hazardous substances still pose a serious threat to our environment. It also showed that accidental water pollution can have far-reaching transboundary effects even if it occurs far from an international border.

In response to this accident, the international community started negotiations on a legal instrument on civil liability within the UNECE framework (Industrial Accidents Convention and Water Convention). In 2003 the fi fth ministerial conference Environment for Europe, in Kiev, adopted the joint protocol on Civil Liability and Compensation for Damage Caused by the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters.

International assistance The Industrial Accidents Convention imposes concrete obligations on the competent authorities and operators of hazardous installations to prevent, prepare for and respond to industrial accidents. To improve industrial safety and reduce the risk of industrial accidents and their transboundary effects, it is important that all countries of the region fully implement the convention.

This is not yet the case. While implementation of the convention has made good progress in Central and Western Europe, it is proving more diffi cult in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

An internationally supported assistance programme for these countries is addressing the key obstacles to accession and implementation. Four main things are lacking: an appropriate regulatory and institutional framework; adequate human resources for implementation, monitoring and enforcement; suffi cient fi nancial resources; and up-to-date technology.

Sergiusz Ludwiczak is the Secretary to the Industrial Accidents Convention and an environmental affairs offi cer et the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva.

 

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