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Air Date: September 26, 2000

Program 0039

Hungarian Cyanide Terror/ICRC

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely

distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

© 2000 by The Stanley Foundation

GABOR SZILAGUI: If I consider all the damage, I would say it was an ecological catastrophe. Populations of 93 species were damaged seriously.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the aftermath of a Central European environmental disaster. Plus, the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Marion Harroff-Tavel: In fact, when we talk about humanitarian action in armed conflict very often people only think in terms of the big medical and relief activities carried out, when there is a lot more, which is protection work.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Last winter a series of ecological disasters in Central Europe seriously damaged some of the finest natural areas left on the continent and tested the ability of newly emerged democracies to cope with emergencies. First, the dam of a gold mine’s slurry lagoon burst in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. Thousands of gallons of cyanide-polluted water were discharged into the nearby river system. The cyanide worked its way down the Tisza River, across Hungary, and into the Danube in northern Serbia. By then thousands of tons of fish had been killed, along with birds and other animals that fed off them. Six weeks later another dam burst at the Baia Borsa Mine, releasing 20,000 tons of sediment full of poisonous heavy metals into the same river system. As Correspondent Max Easterman reports, many are questioning the ability of both the Romanian and Hungarian governments to police environmental protection and cope with major emergencies.

[sound of birds chirping]

MAX EASTERMAN: This is the bird hospital in the Hortobágy National Park. The Hortobágy is the jewel in Hungary’s ecological crown, a vast area of natural grassland, reed beds, lagoons, and wetlands. Home to some of the richest and rarest wildlife in Central Europe. It’s a World Heritage site. It was declared a World Heritage site just a couple of months before the cyanide rolled down the river Tisza, through the park, and destroyed a lot of the natural life here. I’ve come to meet Dr. Janos Deri, the bird doctor who’s treating a rare white-tailed eagle, one of the victims of the cyanide. It’s here, inside the cage.

[sound of cage being opened and the eagle flapping its wings]

EASTERMAN: Now what condition was this bird in when you found it?

DR. JANOS DERI: [via a translator] We have found this bird on the banks of the Tisza after the cyanide poisoning. It was in a very bad condition. It wasn’t able to move. It was poisoned with cyanide, but also it was poisoned with heavy metals; that was his main problem.

[The eagle flaps his wings; sound of running stream or river; river sounds continue to play in background]

EASTERMAN: Although the Hortobágy authorities were able to shut many of the lakes and small rivers off from the cyanide pollution, at least three other eagles and many other birds died from eating poisoned fish here in the Tisza. But the greatest damage was to the water life itself. Dead fish were hauled out by the hundreds of tons. And no one yet knows just how the insect life that everything else depends on has been affected, especially by the heavy metal pollution that came after the cyanide. The Hortobágy Park begins just a few hundred yards downstream from here, and I’m on way to see its Deputy Director, Gabor Szilagui.

GABOR SZILAGUI: If I consider all the damage I would say it was an ecological catastrophe. Populations of 93 species were damaged seriously. We don’t have data of the invertebrate populations-dragon flies, May flies, caddis flies. We still don’t know whether they can reproduce successfully. These heavy metals can damage the reproductive system and the respiratory organs of these animals. It is dangerous for the species and the wildlife, and it’s dangerous also for man-fishing and angling in the rivers.

[sound of an outboard motor]

EASTERMAN: This is one of the many lagoons along the River Tisza, at Tiszafûred. Tiszafûred is a small village and it lives off fishing and river tourism. Six months after the pollution, some of the fish are coming back, but the tourists and the sports fisherman are not. The word “cyanide” has frightened people off and that’s bad news for people like Gabor Hegedûs, who runs the fishing company I’ve hired this boat from.

Gabor Hegedûs: [via a translator] It’s been a catastrophe for my business. My income is down 80 percent this year. Our main job is fishing, which produces over half my income. In this part of the river, half the fish died from the cyanide. We practically live from tourism here. And 65 percent of tourism comes from the fishing. Fishing is worth more than $1.5 million every year.

EASTERMAN: Hungarians love their fish. Halászlé, Hungarian fish soup, is more popular than goulash in many parts of the country. It’s truly only a great disaster that would keep a Hungarian fisherman away from his lines and nets. Above all, from his beloved Tisza. Several thousand jobs depend directly on the Tisza. Gabor Hegedûs, says time, and especially money, are running out for them all.

Gabor Hegedûs: [via a translator] I feel helpless. I don’t know what to do. My mortgage interest is 20 percent and I don’t know how to pay it. Other people have the same problem. So some of us will surely go bankrupt.

EASTERMAN: The economic pressure to get tourists back to the Tisza has led some people to make over optimistic, perhaps risky, statements. When the floods came in April, they also did a lot of damage. But some local mayors and national politicians, even environmental experts, thought they saw a silver lining. The flood waters, they said, would dilute and wash away the heavy metal sludges. Gabor Szilagui, the Deputy Director, of the Hortobágy National Park, says that in his opinion that’s nonsense.

GABOR SZILAGUI: I don’t believe that it was washed out in this way. I believe it was only covered by the new sediment layer and in this way the sludge is conserved in the sediment and this can be very dangerous for wildlife. Because they live in the sediment. Through their skin they take up these heavy metals into their body, and this can cause an ecological problem, with the accumulation in the food chain. I believe that this sludge layer, this heavy metal layer, is a very dangerous thing on the long term.

EASTERMAN: The arguments about this have raged back and forth over the past few months, but Gabor Szilagui’s view is supported by a growing body of international evidence. The complex chemicals created in modern industrial processes like gold mining can behave quite unpredictably when they’re released into the environment. They may appear inert, but they may not be, and human health can be at risk. Joszef Feiler, a Friend of the Earth in Budapest, claims it’s not possible to say exactly what a chemical will do or when it will do it.

JOSZEF FEILER: Some specialty scientists dealing with similar spirits arising from mining operations say that there are cyanide and heavy metal composites which are hard to detect and they are acting like time bombs. When their chemical environment changes, then they can release the toxic material. So there is no clear answer on the health impact.

EASTERMAN: So this could happen any time?

Joszef Feiler: Yes, so it is hard to predict, event the possible consequences, but there are some signs that there can be similar cases in Khirgistan and in other countries indicate that health impacts are present.

EASTERMAN: How long could those heavy metal cyanide stay there?

JOSZEF FEILER: For a decade; for more decades. It depends on the circumstances.

EASTERMAN: There has been much criticism of the way the Hungarian government reacted, or failed to react, in the first hours and days after the cyanide spill. The critics include some senior government employees, one of whom told me that Hungary would now need to have another cyanide spill in order to get any really useful data on what to do about the last one. There was a conspicuous lack of cooperation between some ministers. The head of the International Department at the Environment Ministry, Nándor Zoltai, now admits there were clashes when a special session of the Cross-Borders River Committee was proposed by his ministry.

NÁNDOR ZOLTAI: This is a case where you are completely right in the criticism concerning the cooperation between the two ministries. At the very beginning we wanted to initiate a special session of a joint committee between Hungary and Romania. And although the subcommittee’s chairman is working for this ministry, the chairman of the higher committee is working in another ministry. And that leader was not in favor of the special session. And we lost the one week, almost.

EASTERMAN: Which is a terrible failure, really, isn’t it?

NÁNDOR ZOLTAI: Yes, an unfortunate failure.

EASTERMAN: It wasn’t the only one. Last year Hungary passed a new law on disaster management. It could have used it to deal with both the cyanide and heavy metal crises. It didn’t do so, apparently for technical reasons. But when I asked Nándor Zoltai why, the real reason soon became clear.

NÁNDOR ZOLTAI: The law is addressing disasters like flood and earthquake. This was the case for that. This was an ecological catastrophe.

EASTERMAN: But it was as a result of a flood. It was a flood in Romania, wasn’t it?

ZOLTAI: Yes. Yes, but under this law you cannot declare the area given as a disaster area. It is simply a legal impossibility.

EASTERMAN: But could parliament not have very rapidly changed it and made it possible? Or could the minister not have…

ZOLTAI: Of course could, it could. And in fact my minister, Mr. Pepo, was initiating to declare this area a disaster area. But he was not successful in that.


ZOLTAI: I don’t know.

EASTERMAN: Critics say it’s because they didn’t want to spend the money. They knew it would cost an awful lot.

ZOLTAI: Yes. And the money is all the time coming in, of course, but reference was made by other members of the government to the legal nature of this law.

EASTERMAN: But money played a role?

ZOLTAI: I think yes. I think yes.

EASTERMAN: Since then, the government has appointed a commissioner for the Tisza, János Gönczy. He described his job to me essentially banging ministerial heads together to make things work. But virtually the only thing which everybody agrees on is that the polluters must pay for what they’ve done. The mine that spewed out the cyanide belonged jointly to a Romanian company, Aurul, and to an Australian one, Esmeralda. When the dam burst, Esmeralda denied that the cyanide that flowed out was responsible for the ecological disaster that followed. It blamed cold weather, though it was one of the warmest Februarys for many years. Since then the company has gone into voluntary liquidation to avoid any claims against it. The Romanian government, meanwhile, says it does want to clean up its appalling environmental record but needs a lot of foreign aid money to do it. Tisza Commissioner Gönczy told me that these excuses aren’t going to cut much ice with this government

JÁNOS GÖNCZY: [via a translator] We will sue Esmeralda. I don’t know if we will succeed, but we have to do it for Hungarians everywhere. We have to teach Esmeralda a lesson, and not just Esmeralda, but everyone who pollutes our rivers.

EASTERMAN: Does that include the Romanian government?

GÖNCZY: [via a translator] They authorized the investment at Baia Mare. They supervised Esmeralda, so they are responsible and they have to pay. We hope they will, but if they don’t we will sue them, too.

EASTERMAN: The Australian company, Esmeralda, has refused to answer any of the questions we’ve put to it about the Aurul Mine, compensation, or its own behavior since the pollution disaster. The important question though for Hungary is to make sure such a disaster can never happen again. And here, there are problems ahead. Because neither the Romanians, nor the Ukrainians, nor the Slovaks, all of whom have dangerously polluting factories along the Tisza catchment, none of them know the exact state these factories are in. When I asked the Environment Ministry spokesman in Budapest, Nándor Zoltai, if he was confident that at least the two Romanian mines involved, in the cyanide and heavy metal incidents, would not offend again, I got a worrying reply.

ZOLTAI: Concerning cyanide I am optimistic. As far as heavy metals are concerned, coming from Baia Borsa, I am not confident at all. It may occur anytime.

EASTERMAN: Why could it?

ZOLTAI: Because the so-called dam of that reservoir was made of mining sludge. That is not a whole. That is not a dam.

EASTERMAN: So Baia Borsa is a time bomb?

ZOLTAI: It can be said. Yes, yes.

EASTERMAN: And that is not much consolation to Joszef Feiler, at the Budapest branch of Friends of the Earth.

FEILER: It was an 8,000 years for the ecosystem and it will take another 8,000 years to build up a similar ecosystem. You cannot speed it up. I mean, you cannot make a 30-years-old fish, as there were 30-years-old fishes in the river. You just can put small fish and you have to wait for 30 years, for them to grow up. So this is how it is.

[sound of a running stream or river.]

EASTERMAN: The people here in Tiszafüred know deep down that it will take a long time. But what worries them is that they don’t think the Romanians can be relied on to clean up their act. As one villager put it, You’d be better negotiating with the paddle in my boat. At least it can’t tell lies.’ The Tisza has not only lost its fish and its birds and its animals, it’s also lost its confidence. And that will take a long time to return. For Common Ground, this is Max Easterman, in Tiszafüred, Hungary.

PORTER: Coming up, how the International Committee for the Red Cross responds to humanitarian crises.

Marion Harroff-Tavel: But when there is an international armed conflict we must offer our services because the Geneva Conventions on which our work is based contains certain provisions relating to the ICRC. For example, we should visit war prisoners.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MCHUGH: The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the first organizations to respond to humanitarian needs in the wake of natural disasters. But the ICRC also lends a helping hand in conflict regions around the globe. Marion Harroff-Tavel is the political advisor to the Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She says the definition of humanitarian intervention is changing.

Marion Harroff-TavelL: I would say, I think it’s generally viewed as an, a military action in response to major violations of human rights in a third country. Now, it’s a very good question you ask, because the terminology can be quite confusing. You see, when we used to talk about humanitarian intervention, when we talked about actions that we-the International Committee of the Red Cross-we are doing in an independent, neutral, impartial manner to help victims. And now this is used in the media, by everybody to mean something totally different. So there is some confusion with the terms. Even at some point the French doctors talked about a duty of humanitarian intervention. And when they did so they meant the possibility to bring assistance to people crossing a border, you know, without consent of the state. So, this is a rather, a rather confusing term I think.

MCHUGH: So you think that it has probably changed, the definition has changed over the years?

Harroff-Tavel: Yes. I think it’s an old concept and I think different people give different meanings to that concept. So in some ways yes, you may say it has changed. I think it should be important to clearly distinguish the humanitarian action in answer to needs of the victims of armed conflicts or violence, a problem which humanitarian intervention addresses not the effects of violence, but the causes of violence. And which is military action.

MCHUGH: In your experience do world citizens understand what humanitarian intervention is, or is that really more of a government, political term?

Harroff-Tavel: I think that they do understand usually what is meant. I think it is currently used in the Western press. I couldn’t say for other countries. There are a lot of people in the world who live situations of conflict and situations of violence. And one thing I would like to remark is that very often they are forgotten conflicts. So there is a lot of spotlight on certain conflicts because there is outside intervention. But one forgets many other places where people suffer in anonymity.

MCHUGH: One of the biggest questions is when do countries or organizations intervene on behalf of humanity, is there a standard that your organization uses?

Harroff-Tavel: The ICRC offers its services in times of armed conflict. So when there is an international armed conflict we must offer our services because the Geneva Conventions on which our work is based contains certain provisions relating to the ICRC. For example, we should visit war prisoners. Now in what we call noninternational conflicts, which are civil wars, the Geneva Conventions say that we may offer our services. So the fact that we offer our services should not be considered as an interference. Where there is more latitude is in situations of violence which have not reached this level of what is called armed conflict. And then, you know, it’s based on an assessment of the need of how much our intervention may help. You know, lower the level of violence, and you know, a series of criteria used.

MCHUGH: In the United States the Red Cross reacts to natural disasters. Is the response to a natural disaster different than an armed conflict or a man-made disaster?

Harroff-Tavel: That’s an interesting question. I think it all depends on the needs. You have some common needs in conflicts and in natural disasters. For example the need for shelter, for medicine, for food. But you have specific needs in armed conflict, needs related to protection. Because you have armed conflict prisoners, you have summary executions, you have civilians who are in a hostile community. So, in fact, when we talk about humanitarian action in armed conflict very often people only think in terms of the big medical and relief activities carried out, when there is a lot more, which is protection work. And this is a need that usually you would not find with a natural catastrophe.

MCHUGH: When does your organization decide to leave an area that has been in crisis?

Harroff-Tavel: That’s a very tricky question. We cannot say that, you know, when a certain number of criteria are met, and I could give you a list of criteria, we leave. Because each situation is different. What you have to realize is, when you have a cease fire or a peace agreement it does not necessarily mean that humanitarian law is no longer applicable. Some provisions may have an effect longer. For example, if you still have prisoners who have not yet been repatriated. So first we may carry out activities on a longer-term basis because of the law on which we base our activities. And what I would also like to say is when you look at the situation in terms of needs, the fact that the conflict-it’s not over, but terminated by a cease fire or a peace agreement-does not mean that you don’t have emergency need. There may have been whole areas of the countries where humanitarian organizations had no access to. And suddenly they can go and they have a lot to do. And often in those situations, gradually people use up their reserves. They, you start seeing, you know, that they are selling their most cherished goods. The equipment has no maintenance. The private investors do not come in to start the economic situation again because they are afraid of the volatility of the situation. And then gradually people plunge into despair because they have very great hopes when the fighting stops, and then they realize that their situation is going from bad to worse. And this is a rather difficult time of transition, where organizations still have-humanitarian organizations-still have quite a lot to do.

MCHUGH: The United Nations does a lot of humanitarian intervention all across the world. How does your organization work with the UN?

Harroff-Tavel: Well, we work very closely with the United Nations. In particular with the UNHCR, which works for refugees. We are very often, you know, involved in the same conflicts. I must say, first we have different mandates, but where our activities may overlap, well we try on a pragmatic basis in each situation to work out the best arrangement for the victims. And we also have very regular contacts with the UNHCR in Geneva. So we have yearly meetings at a high level. And we take this opportunity to discuss general issues of concern to both of us.

MCHUGH: Sovereignty is always an issue that comes up in humanitarian interventions. Does your organization need consent from nations or conflict areas before you go in?

Harroff-Tavel: Well, you know, for humanitarian organizations it’s a choice whether or not they are going to ask for consent. We, in a situation of international armed conflict, the situation is slightly different. I would say in an international armed conflict we will offer our services, of course to all the parties. Now, if one country doesn’t want to accept our offer of services but others do, we will help the victims where we can. Now if you talk of a country where there is a civil war, we feel that it’s important to act in full transparency, and preferably to have the consent of the government to work. Because if you want to do important work on a long-term basis, it’s helpful. This being said, it doesn’t necessarily need to be explicit consent. It may be implicit consent. And a general wish to work on a basis of confidence with all the parties, actually. I mentioned the government, but this goes with all the parties.

MCHUGH: Has there ever been a situation, or at least in recent times, where your organization has been told to leave?

Harroff-Tavel: Well, there are times, there are situations where sometimes we have to leave. But there are also situations when we decide to leave, unfortunately. Because the security risks are increasing and it’s, they are increasing not only in connection with the way hostilities are conducted, because this is a kind of risk we are used to and I would say prepared to take in a certain amount, but now there is more banditry and criminality in the midst of conflicts. You know, there are more and more situations of you know, taking of hostages. And so the security in some situations obliges us to temporarily decide to suspend an operation. The way we deal with this is to try to have very close contact with people within the society, to talk to everybody, to talk to every leader, every opinion-maker, to explain who we are and to create what I said before, this level of confidence in us, so people understand what we are trying to do and how and why. And we feel this is more valuable to provide security than, for example, armed escorts, which we rely on only on, in exceptional times.

MCHUGH: That is Marion Harroff-Tavel, the political advisor to the Director of the International Committee for the Red Cross. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0039. That’s Program Number 0039. To order by credit card you can call us at 319-264-1500. That’s 319-264-1500.

MCHUGH: Transcripts are also available on our Web site: Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is [email protected].

PORTER: Hélène Papper is our associate producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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