30 years ago

A look back at the news in October 1981

The October 1981 issue of HCB concerned itself largely with liability, and in particular the likelihood that conventions would be introduced to put in place systems by which compensation could be provided to innocent victims of incidents involving dangerous goods.

Those involved in the maritime transport of oils are quite used to the idea; cargo owners have been instrumental in providing cover, both in financial and technical terms, through international conventions and through their own associations. And in the business of crude oil transport, for instance, the matter is fairly simple – there are only a few players in any trade: the producer, the refiner, the shipowner, perhaps also a terminal owner and a trader or two.

When it comes to dangerous goods, however, the situation is way more complex. As such, the path to developing liability systems to offer compensation to those who suffer damage has proved to be very tortuous. Back in 1981, for instance, there were two conventions in the course of development: the Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) Convention being tackled by the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (soon to be renamed IMO); and a proposed convention on third-party liability for the carriage of hazardous cargoes overland and by inland waterway, being put together by Unidroit.

The second of these was described as being “still at a preliminary study stage after a decade’s work”. By contrast, the first seemed to be ticking along nicely and was due to be put to an international diplomatic conference in late 1983. As things turned out, though, it was not that easy; the HNS Convention was not adopted until 1996 and even then failed to enter into force. It has since been superseded by the 2010 Protocol, although this too has failed to attract sufficient signatures to allow it to enter into force.

Meanwhile, the Convention on Civil Liability for Damage caused during Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road, Rail and Inland Navigation Vessels (CRTD) was opened for ratification by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) in October 1989. Like the HNS Convention, however, it has failed to garner much support, with only Germany (the German Democratic Republic, as it was at the time) and Morocco rushing to add their signatures in 1990, and Liberia depositing its ratification in 2005. Like the HNS Convention, therefore, CRTD has yet to enter into force.

The last of four ad hoc Meeting of Experts on CRTD took place in November 2003. At the end of its report, the Meeting gave a number of options to the UN ECE Inland Transport Committee. To quote from the final paragraph of the report:

... the Committee might perhaps wish to consider whether it might be useful to adopt the revised CRTD by consensus, or to refer it to a Diplomatic Conference, or to ascertain whether more time was needed for a prudent consideration or whether the project should be abandoned.

It would appear that states have taken it upon themselves to allow the project to wither on the vine. Perhaps the supply chain is just too disparate to support a system that relies on contributions from major shippers; perhaps too many states are unwilling to sign up to a convention that runs counter to their own legislative outlook on liability; perhaps the original proposals were just too big for their own boots. Whatever, we have certainly not heard a crowd gathering to clamour for the conventions’ introduction.

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