November 28, 2016
Guest blog by Christian Friis Bach, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Irena Majcen, Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning of the Republic of Slovenia.
Sadly, the devastating effects of industrial accidents, with their far-reaching and severe consequences, continue to impact the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe. Major accidents keep on happening, such as last year’s chemical explosions in Tianjin, China, and the Bento Rodrigues tailings dam collapse in Brazil. Severe accidents can happen in Europe too, as the recent explosion at the BASF chemical factory in Ludwigshafen demonstrated. Four people died in that accident and several others were injured.
As this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of a fire at the Sandoz chemical plant near Basel, Switzerland and the fortieth anniversary of an explosion at a chemical plant in the Italian town of Seveso — two of the biggest industrial accidents in Europe — we cannot but wonder whether Governments can do anything to protect their people from the disastrous impacts of such accidents? Did they learn lessons from past disasters? The good news is that the answer is “Yes!”
First and foremost, countries can unite their efforts in preventing such accidents from happening and minimize their effects as much as possible when they do occur. Cooperation between neighbours is paramount to achieve effective prevention, preparedness and response measures for industrial accidents. This is exactly what the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (Industrial Accidents Convention) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) helps States to do. It establishes the necessary procedures to follow in order to reduce the risk of accidents happening by ensuring that industrial operations are managed safely, information is shared and emergency plans are in place. Unfortunately, borders don’t serve as barriers to the effects of industrial accidents: hazardous materials leaked into a transboundary river in one country may well affect communities in countries downstream of the accident. But if neighbouring countries have common procedures for the identification and notification of hazardous activities, if contingency plans are harmonized, if authorities cooperate and the public are well-informed, then the collective efforts of the States make each individual country and the wider region better positioned to stop and minimize accidents and their transboundary effects.
In almost a quarter of a century, since its adoption in 1992, 40 countries and the European Union have joined the Industrial Accidents Convention. Earlier, as an answer to the Seveso accident, the European Union had adopted its own legislation aimed at the prevention and control of industrial accidents. Because accidents know no borders, the Convention complements the so-called Seveso Directive by reaching out to countries outside the EU and by focusing on cross-border cooperation. The two instruments share the same principles and promote cooperation to ensure the highest level of prevention of and preparedness for industrial accidents.
We would like to call on Governments that have not yet joined the Convention to do so in order to protect their populations and the environment. Support towards accession to and implementation of the Convention is available for many countries. The Convention’s Assistance Programme aims to enhance the capacities of countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in their implementation efforts, and to support UNECE countries with economies in transition to improve their industrial safety. Fifteen countries are currently benefiting from the Assistance Programme, which remains open to helping other countries to reach higher standards of industrial safety.
Unfortunately, no legal instrument has the power to guarantee that our communities and the environment are completely safe from industrial accidents, and major accidents continue to occur. However, since the Industrial Accidents Convention’s entry into force, the countries that joined the Convention have become better prepared to respond to these types of accidents Though we should not forget that no country is immune to industrial disasters, the Convention is helping to reduce their likelihood and ensure that countries are better prepared to reduce their effects if they should occur. All countries should strive to be ready for such accidents and have the capacity and willingness to join forces in making industrial operations safer.
The Conference of the Parties of the Industrial Accidents Convention provides an international forum for countries to negotiate necessary action in the area of industrial safety. Meeting once every two years, its next session will take place on 28–30 November 2016 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. One of the key outcomes expected from the meeting is the opening of the Convention for accession by all Member States of the United Nations (not just those in the UNECE region). This would put us on track to achieve universal cooperation in industrial safety for the health and well-being of our communities and the environment. It would also contribute to global efforts to achieve sustainable development and reduce the risk of disasters of all kinds, bringing countries closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the priorities for action set out in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. To ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, let us not just hope, but act to safeguard our present and future generations from new “Sandozes” or “Sevesos”.