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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste, Mr. Calin Georgescu: End of Mission to Hungary

BUDAPEST (11 October 2012) At the end of his official country mission to Hungary, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Mr. Calin Georgescu, delivered the following statement:

“From 4 to 11 October 2012, I carried out an official mission to Hungary in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste. The purpose of my visit was to examine, in a spirit of co-operation and dialogue, the progress made and the difficulties encountered by your country in implementing its obligations under human rights and environmental law to ensure the sound management and disposal of hazardous products and wastes. More specifically, I have come to Hungary to study the human rights consequences of the Ajka industrial incident of October 2010, with a view to offering my expert advice on the measures to adopt to eliminate, or mitigate, the adverse impact that this incident had on the enjoyment of human rights.

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the Government of Hungary for inviting me to visit the country. In particular, I would like to extend my appreciation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which played a major role in the preparation and organisation of this mission. During my visit, I had many meetings with high-level officials from various ministries, parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, representatives of international organisations, academics, civil society, and local communities. I am grateful for the cooperation of the Hungarian Government during my mission, as well as the generous participation of civil society partners. The openness shown by the Government before and during the mission demonstrates its commitment and willingness to co-operate with the international community in the solution of the pending challenges faced by the country in the field of sound management and disposal of toxic and dangerous products and wastes. In particular, I am pleased to acknowledge the efforts made by Hungary in addressing the consequences of the Ajka industrial incident and mitigate its adverse effects on the population of Kolontár and Devecser.

On 4 October 2010, Hungary experienced its greatest industrial incident and ecological catastrophe, also known as the Ajka industrial incident, which occurred when a reservoir dam containing the waste product of aluminium ore extraction known as ‘red mud’, in an alkaline mixture, broke. The highly caustic substance flooded towns destroying homes, as well causing injury and fatalities to residents and rescuers in its wake. In addition, it caused extensive environmental damage that has cost approximately 20 billion HUF to remediate, and even then not completely. My mission focused on the human rights issues associated with this incident including impact on health, housing, water and sanitation, a safe and healthy environment and the right to adequate and effective remedy.

Over the past week, I have been able to collect a significant amount of information which I will study in order to prepare my mission report, to be presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2013. My report will include my conclusions and specific recommendations on how to address the concerns of the affected communities from Devecser and Kolontár.Today I will only make a few preliminary remarks.

I would like start by saying that the Hungarian Government is committed to addressing the human rights impacts of the Ajka incident. Within hours of the incident, a team of experts were deployed to the site to assess the incident and produce an environmental health risk assessment model that informed the crisis management task force established shortly thereafter. Simultaneously, medical personnel, fire officers and volunteers were also deployed to ensure the preservation of life and the protection of property. I observed new houses built as a result of the government’s programme to provide alternative and adequate housing to people affected by the Ajka incident. The government also provided on-site psychological and medical support for several months after the incident. There is continuous monitoring of the environment and the health of these communities.

Despite the government’s efforts to eliminate or mitigate the consequences of the Ajka industrial incident, communities living in Devecser and Kolontár demand final and just reparation primarily that responsible parties have not been held accountable. In this regard, I am satisfied to note that judicial proceedings brought by affected communities against the company responsible for the reservoir are currently undergoing. It is my hope that the course of justice will result in the adequate reparation for the people and the restoration of their losses to the best possible extent. Consequently, I am currently not in a position to comment on some issues that relate to the trial since they are now sub-judice.

Subsequent to the Ajka incident, Hungary has transformed laws, regulations and policy but more needs to be done including the strengthening of the Directorate for Disaster Management in order that it has greater enforcement jurisdiction over the industries it now has oversight of.

Additionally, I remain concerned that, without improved accountability of some of the highly polluting industries in Hungary, people will remain at the mercy of some of these companies that evade liability and instead it is innocent people who will bear the brunt of the impact and pay with their health, lives and property. Justice is distorted when the victim pays for the conduct of the accused. Despite regional efforts in the EU legislation recommending a mandatory liability scheme for industries, like many other countries, Hungary had not adequately translated these into its policy and legal frameworks. The problem is confounded in the case of multinational corporations and in particular efforts to respect relevant normative framework, such as the EU directive on liability for environmental damage and the Guiding principles on business and human rights. These instruments should receive political support if the protection of people from the harmful substances, wastes and products used and produced by highly polluting industries, is to be realized.

The proper classification of harmful substances and the proper storage and environmentally sound disposal of hazardous substances in light of the best available technology is vital. However, the best available technology should be defined so that ‘best’ translates in practice to ensuring that it is not adverse to people or impacts on their human rights. Hungary offers a test case of lessons learned, of gaps turned into opportunity. It is of the utmost importance that Hungary continues monitoring the state of the environment and the health of populations that are in close proximity to facilities that produce or use hazardous substances. Risk management and preparedness plans must be in place and the government should enable access to information about the nature of hazardous substances which starts with accurate classification. Highly polluting industries and companies, in particular, must be held more accountable for their conduct in the infringement of the fundamental rights of innocent populations in areas where they operate.

I wish now to make some comments about the management of hazardous substances and wastes in general in Hungary. I have received concerns about metallurgic plants in the north of Hungary that are reported to operate in close proximity to the population and encroaching on the protection zone, as well as recycling plants that continuously emit hazardous fumes contrary to licensing requirements. I raised these concerns with the Government during my visit and am pleased to share that it committed to looking further at these reports.