UNECE SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORT DIVISION – IMMEDIATE RESPONSES
Border crossing facilitation initiatives
When countries around the world began closing borders and imposing lockdowns, the global supply chains were deeply affected. Perhaps you, yourself experienced a lack of basic goods at the supermarket or pharmacy. With customers buying in bulk out of fear, shops struggled to restock their shelves.
There are various UN Conventions, such as the Customs Convention on the International Transport of Goods under Cover of TIR Carnets (TIR Convention, 1975), the Convention on the Contract for the International Carriage of Goods by Road, (known as CMR and its additional protocol, e-CMR), the International Convention on Harmonization of Frontier Controls of Goods (or Harmonization Convention) that govern the transport of goods across borders, ensuring a smooth and efficient transit through customs. As countries implemented strict border measures, the usual, internationally agreed upon regulations and conditions, which apply to transport were set aside. This crisis not only led in some cases to shortages in food and other essential goods it also resulted in social impacts where transport professionals including truck drivers, customs and border officers often got stuck for days in a row at border clearance posts, exposed to possible COVID-19 contagion given the often precarious infrastructure and sanitary situation at many land border crossings across the region.
The UNECE Sustainable Transport Division took a number of initiatives to ensure that borders continued to let goods through:
- In February 2020, UNECE, in partnership with other UN Regional Commissions and partner organizations, established an Observatory on border crossing status due to COVID 19. This online platform collects and illustrates, on a systematic basis, information about the status of inland freight border crossings, including policies and regulatory requirements in place. The main objective of the Observatory is to be an information-sharing platform for transport sector stakeholders, providing information on measures imposed by different Governments enabling transport companies to adapt their itineraries and transport solutions accordingly. The Observatory, as of October 2020, is a platform that provides updated information on the current border crossing status in 174 UN Member States.
- In parallel, UNECE put in place an “Open the borders” campaign to keep the borders open for transport of goods. On 16 April 2020, the Executive Secretary of UNECE and the Secretary General of IRU sent a joint letter to all Heads of Customs authorities calling on them to consider the application of specific measures and good practices to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the international supply chains.
- eTIR International System: UNECE and IRU have been working on an electronic version of the TIR system allowing for a paperless and contactless operating environment while continuing to ensure the safe and secure transport of goods. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis it was decided to accelerate the implementation of the eTIR international system contactless environment to assist in countering the spread of the virus. The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s report entitled “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19”, mentions: “Innovative tools such as UN eTIR/eCMR systems and other tools that allow the exchange electronic information without physical contact and facilitate the flow of goods across borders should be used”. Furthermore, after the initial call to implement eTIR (7 April 2020), 17 Governments and the European Union (28 Member States) responded positively.
- Implementation of the United Nations Development Account (UNDA) project on “Transport and trade connectivity in the age of pandemics: UN solutions for contactless, seamless and collaborative transport and trade”. The project promotes the implementation of United Nations solutions, including standards, guidelines, metrics, tools and methodologies to immediately help Governments, including customs and other border agencies, port authorities, and the business community world-wide, to keep transport networks and borders operational, to facilitate the flow of goods and services, while at the same time containing the further spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Offering a platform for multi-stakeholder cooperation and coordination
Establishment of an Informal Multidisciplinary Advisory Group on Transport Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis
At its eighty-second annual session (Geneva, 25–28 February 2020), the Inland Transport Committee (ITC) “Requested the UNECE secretariat, in close cooperation with the Bureau, with the support of interested Governments and key stakeholders to conduct necessary research on provisions in existing frameworks and new needed areas of work to promote cooperation between transport authorities in the field of counteracting the effects of emergency situations of cross-country nature, including epidemics and pandemics, and present this information to the Working Party on Transport Trends and Economics (WP.5) for consideration of further steps and for inclusion to its programme of work.”
In response to this tasking, and as the pandemic further evolved, the secretariat established, under auspices of the Working Party on Transport Trends and Economics (WP.5) an Informal Multidisciplinary Advisory Group on Transport Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis which had its first virtual meeting on 9 June 2020 and its second on 8 September 2020 as part of the thirty-third session of WP.5. Based on inputs received from Governments and other stakeholders during these Multidisciplinary Advisory Group sessions and based on guidance received from WP.5 in September 2020 and the ITC Bureau at its session in November 2020, a working document has been prepared by the secretariat and submitted to Inland Transport Committee for consideration and possible endorsement of next steps. Inter alia, the report identifies a set of lessons learned for international inland transport and for the customs and border management sector.
Lessons learned for international inland transport include:
- The importance of immediate coordination in response to the outbreak and the effective ongoing coordination at regional, national and international levels.
- The importance of efficient supply chains and keeping goods moving.
- The need to collect and feed evidence and data into decision making.
- The digitalization of processes has made them contact-free and safer and more efficient.
- The need for clear communication to the public and to operators on changes to procedures and new rules.
- Engagement across sectors (e.g. health, transport, customs, business) has been crucial in using an evidence-based approach to decision making.
Lessons learned for customs / border management include:
- Need for enhanced preparedness – use of electronic services, risk management (selectivity and profiling before conducting physical checks), non-intrusive inspection (NII) equipment, availability of disaster response/ mitigation plans and business continuity plans.
- Need for enhanced coordination – use of a whole of government approach, Coordinated Border Management (CBM), coordination with neighbouring countries and/or at regional levels, especially in case of pandemics.
- Streamlining and simplifying Customs procedures – green lanes for freight traffic.
- Transparency of documentary requirements – all necessary information should be publicly available.
- The report also identifies several possible recommendations for consideration and possible endorsement of the ITC at its 84th Session in February 2021.
The full report is available here.
Discussions in the framework of the Working Party on Transport Trends and Economics (WP.24)
In order to understand the impact of COVID-19 on intermodal transport and logistics, the Chair and Vice-Chair of WP.24 with support of the WP.24 secretariat organised and held a virtual Friends of Chair meeting to discuss those impacts and the lessons learned in the industry.
WP.24 continued the discussion on COVID-19 and intermodal transport and logistics at its 63rd session held on 28-30 October 2020. The discussion focused on the developments and impacts from the evolving pandemic, response measures taken and their assessment as well as prospects for freight transport. WP.24 confirmed the lessons learned exchanged during the Friends of the Chair meeting. It confirmed and called for recovery measures which would create the necessary conditions to increase competitiveness of intermodal transport in particular versus road transport. It warned of unwarranted freight transport subsidies which may distort the transport market and slow down its transition to a more sustainable one. WP.24 recognized that the pandemic has pushed governments to increase the importance they give to the digitalisation of transport documents. WP.24 underscores that digitalisation should be an integral part of the very much needed transport optimization process in both operations and infrastructure. WP.24 endorsed, during its 63rd session, a Handbook for national master plans for freight transport and logistics which, among others, showcases these transport optimizations processes. The handbook will be published in the spring of 2021.
WP.24 also recognized that the pandemic may bring about more diversification and local sourcing for supply chains. Such a development may have a positive impact on freight transport in a medium term.
Bringing these considerations together, in order to support a further development of intermodal freight transport – a development very much needed to continue freight transport system transition to a more sustainable one, as well as one which would be more resilient to emergency situations such as pandemics – WP.24 approved a resolution on strengthening intermodal freight transport. The resolution proposed by WP.24 has been adopted at the 83rd Session of the Inland Transport Committee in February 2021.