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Hungary: UN expert on toxic waste calls for greater accountability of polluting companies

BUDAPEST (11 October 2012) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu welcomed today the Hungarian Government’s commitment in addressing the impacts of the 2010 Ajka aluminium plant incident, the country’s greatest industrial accident and ecological catastrophe, and called for greater liability of polluting companies.

“Justice is distorted when the victim pays for the conduct of the accused,” Mr. Georgescu said* at the end of the first information-gathering mission to Hungary by an independent expert charged by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate and report on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management of hazardous substances and wastes.

“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,” he stressed.

The Special Rapporteur mission focused particularly on the consequences of the 4 October 2010 Ajka industrial incident which affected the communities of Kolontár and Devecser, with fatalities, injuries to residents and volunteers, and extensive environmental damage that so far has cost some 20billion HUF (US$910m) to remediate.

“Despite regional efforts in the European Union legislation recommending a mandatory liability scheme for industries, like many other countries, Hungary had not adequately translated these into its policy and legal frameworks,” Mr. Georgescu noted.

In his view, the problem is confounded in the case of multinational corporations and in particular efforts to respect relevant normative frameworks, 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,” he said.

The independent expert also assessed the human rights issues associated with the Ajka incident, including impact on health, housing, water and sanitation, safe environment, and adequate and effective remedy.

“The Hungarian Government is committed to addressing the human rights impacts of the Ajka incident,” the Special Rapporteur highlighted, recalling the authorities prompt reaction to the event with emergency teams providing psychological and medical support, as well as rebuilding programmes and continuous monitoring of the environment and the health of these communities.

However, despite the government’s efforts to eliminate or mitigate the consequences of the Ajka industrial incident, communities living in Devecser and Kolontár are demanding final and just reparation, noting 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,” Mr. Georgescu said.

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

“Hungary offers a test case of lessons learned, of gaps turned into opportunity,” the expert underscored. “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,” he said. “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.”

Moreover, the Special Rapporteur received concerns about metallurgic plants in the north of the country 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,” the independent human rights expert said.

During his eight-day visit to Hungary, Mr. Georgescu held meetings with a wide range of stakeholders, including Government officials and civil society organisations, and visited communities in Kolontár and Devecser.

The Special Rapporteur will prepare a comprehensive mission report containing his conclusions and recommendations and present it to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2013.

Calin Georgescu, the Executive Director of the National Centre for Sustainable Development in Bucharest (Romania), was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2011 by the Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/ToxicWastes/Pages/SRToxicWastesIndex.aspx

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12649&LangID=E

UN Human Rights, country page – Hungary: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/HUIndex.aspx

For more information and media inquiries, please contact Rebaone Ferguson (mob: +41 79 221 8074 / +41 22 917 9333 / rferguson@ohchr.org) or write to srtoxicwaste@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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