The 1992 Helsinki Convention
Compared to other European seas, the Baltic Sea is particularly vulnerable to pollution
and requires a higher level of protection. Its waters are very shallow, with a maximum
depth of 210 meters, and its rather restricted circulation makes it particularly
difficult to clean up any pollution. After two decades of operation, the 1974 Helsinki
Convention did not succeed in arresting marine degradation in the Baltic Sea Area.
In the follow-up to Agenda 21, under the political impetus of the Baltic Ministerial
Declarations, the Baltic coastal states decided to adopt new approaches and to strengthen
the existing legal regime. The political changes which occurred in the region at
the beginning of the 1990s, moreover, created the political momentum for the adoption
of a new Convention. The new 1992 Helsinki Convention, which entered into force on 17 January 2000, is particularly advanced and presents many similarities with the
1992 OSPAR regime.
The 1992 Helsinki Convention sets out a comprehensive legal framework for
promoting the “ecological restoration” of the Baltic Sea, “eliminating” pollution from
all sources and reducing “adverse impacts of human activities” on “marine ecosystems”.
Unlike the OSPAR, the Helsinki Convention contains some general
provisions on shipping and does not expressly exclude fishing. Its regime, like OSPAR,
applies to waters under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the contracting parties,
including internal waters. There are no high seas in the Baltic.
The body of the Convention lays down in binding terms the general environmental
principles and approaches of Agenda 21 (i.e., precautionary principle, the polluter pays
principle, the integrated approach, BAT and BET, and EIA), broad obligations for
contracting parties with a strong emphasis on co-operation, notification, consultation
and reporting, and more detailed provisions for the Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission (HELCOM). These general provisions are further specified in
a number of Annexes that have the same legal status as the Convention.
The main task of HELCOM is to monitor and keep under review the implementation
of the Convention. Unlike OSPARCOM, however, HELCOM cannot adopt binding
decisions, but only recommendations on measures related to the purposes of the Convention.
These recommendations, however, are adopted by unanimity and have great
political weight. HELCOM meetings take place annually and are attended by senior
officials from the environment ministries of the contracting parties accompanied by
national experts and from the representatives of the European Commission (DG ENV).
This state of affairs has been the subject of some criticism. First of all, the fact
that officials, and not ministers, participate in the work of HELCOM seems to weaken
the political weight of the HELCOM recommendations. In addition, officials, unlike
ministers, have to follow political instructions from their governments and are not in
a position to take immediate decisions. This situation, together with the unanimity rule,
may lead to considerable delays in HELCOM decision-making and postpone important
issues to the next annual meeting.
Cooperation between contracting parties at the working level takes place within
five main groups which prepare the work for HELCOM and, at a higher level, within
the meetings of the Heads of Delegations (HOD) and HELCOM, where decisions are
taken. Considering that each group meets at least once a year, it is rather demanding
on the contracting parties to attend all the meetings on the Helcom’s Agenda.
So far, cooperation between the Baltic coastal states has been rather successful,
but there are still serious implementation gaps.