In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action
AFRICA-ASIA: Humanitarian mine clearance, and the growth of the mine action sector
10-year-old Andrevski survived the war in Kosovo but was blown up by a landmine when playing with friends on a hillside just days after the peace agreement was signed. Both of his legs had to be amputated. Kosovo, July 1999.
NAIROBI, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Fourteen years ago humanitarian mine clearance was just a vague concept and still not operational anywhere in the world; at the same time there were the highest number of mines in the ground than at any other time in history. Although data was unreliable, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that throughout the early 1990s approximately 26,000 people were being maimed or killed by anti-personnel mines every year. The shocking reality of the millions of abandoned mines demanded action but the problem seemed overwhelming.
Today a different form of organised mine clearance is underway. Sniffer dogs and mechanical devices are used but mostly the work is done manually by teams of trained men and women working in many of the 63 mine-affected countries. Some countries have recently declared themselves mine-free after years of clearance work but in others the job has barely begun and commentators are worried that by 2009, the target for a mine-free world set by the Ottawa Treaty for the majority of affected countries, thousands of mine-affected communities will be no better off.
"There have been many changes in recent years but there's no way clearance will be complete by 2009," said Rae McGrath, a co-laureate of the Nobel Prize awarded to key members of the campaign to ban landmines.
The scope of the problem
The problem of landmine contamination is closely linked to the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in many countries. The list of affected countries today goes far beyond the number of countries that gave landmines such high notoriety status in the early 1990s. Initially Cambodia, Angola, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Mozambique and northern Iraq dominated news stories either during conflict or immediately following peace accords. The devastation that over 340 different kinds of landmines were causing in these countries shocked the world into action as the numbers of men, women and children killed or maimed every year soared.
In 2003 the Landmine Monitor - an annual publication monitoring the progress of the mine action world and the implementation of the Ottawa Treaty - identified 82 mine-affected countries worldwide. The United Nations initially estimated that up to 120 million landmines awaited identification and clearance but as the emerging mine action sector developed these global estimates are no longer used with any confidence. The emphasis has shifted from the numbers of mines to the area of land affected and the number of communities that continue to live at risk from mines.
Mines were left over in their millions from independence wars, civil wars, and rebel insurgencies, forgotten international conflicts of the cold war era and from the great world wars. Effectively, the scope of the global landmine problem maps the conflicts of the world for the last 60 years. Examples include Egypt, with an estimated 17 million landmines mostly laid during the Second World War, and Laos where hundreds of millions of anti-personnel "bombies" were dropped by US bombers in the 1970s. Tens of millions of mines were left planted in the ground from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The myriad of smaller conflicts half-forgotten by the world in countries such as Chad, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Uganda, Senegal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also left a deadly legacy of mines and with them dead and injured civilians.
According to Martin Barber, Chief of the UN Mine Action Service, "In the early to mid-nineties the consequences of the widespread use of anti-personnel mines in internal conflicts had become horrifyingly apparent." Those working in mine-affected countries started to see large numbers of injured civilians at hospitals and emergency clinics. In more isolated areas those unable to reach hospital in time died of blood loss, if they survived the initial blast. Huge areas of land and major road arteries were out-of-bounds restricting livelihoods and preventing rehabilitation, refugee return and peace building. Health facilities, schools, local markets and water sources as well as vast tracts of arable land and pasture were too dangerous to access. The international humanitarian community responded, somewhat hesitantly at first, in an area they conventionally saw as the preserve of the military. It was an entirely new area of work.
Responding to the crisis
The main responses to the horrors of landmines were three-fold: providing surgical and medical emergency support in the most mine-affected countries; initiating an international campaign to ban landmines; and the organising of mine clearance teams in the hardest hit areas.
First, some key medical agencies started developing clinics to deal with the many thousands of amputations and the fitting of prostheses for the rehabilitation of mine victims. Always a small core group of committed agencies led by groups like the ICRC, Handicap International and Veterans International, they struggle to meet the medical needs of mine victims as well as survivors' needs for rehabilitation and reintegration.
The second response was an expression of the outrage felt by many seeing so many non-combatants maimed and killed by mines. This was the foundation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL - www.icbl.org
.) A few individuals and agencies that decided to take on the armies and governments of the world and force through legislation that would ban the manufacture, sale and use of mines for all time started this campaign. The campaign captured the imagination and harnessed the moral outrage felt globally against landmines and was as utopian as it was ambitious. What was started by half a dozen zealous agencies in 1993 gathered colossal momentum as hundreds of non-governmental organisations, UN bodies and governments supported the movement. This resulted in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty. The Nairobi Summit is the first review conference after five years of entry into force of this treaty.
The third main response of the international community was the emergence of mine clearance and mine risk education, perhaps the most relevant to communities living with the threat of mines. Initially, very few humanitarian mine clearance teams worked in the most extreme and most publicised mine-affected countries: Cambodia, northern Iraq, and Afghanistan. Angola, Mozambique, Laos and Bosnia-Herzegovina soon followed. Today, this list has grown to 63 countries where some form of mine clearance is taking place.
The long road to a mine free world? Are these Angolan mine victims walking towards brighter future?
Credit: MAG/Sean Sutton
Gradually the NGOs involved in mine clearance grew and expanded their operations. This was an entirely new sector that combined military know-how with the humanitarian aims of community development. It was slow work conducted almost entirely by local de-miners using metal detectors and prodders. Their slow progress in the first years only exposed how urgently the sector needed to grow in size and efficiency.
By the mid-1990s nations began to coordinate a global response as donors began to develop structures to finance what was to be a long-term commitment to rid the world of mines. Some governments started to use their own military to clear mines while others created national mine action departments and centres supported by the UN.
In October 1997, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) was formed to serve as the UN focal point for humanitarian mine action. At the global level, it is responsible for coordinating all aspects of mine action within the UN system and ensures an effective and proactive response to landmine contamination. At the field level, UNMAS is responsible for providing mine action assistance during humanitarian emergencies and peacekeeping operations (www.mineaction.org
In 2003, the UN Development Programme and the UN Mine Action Service supported 25 national Mine Action Centres worldwide showing their commitment to develop indigenous capacities to deal with the long-term problem of mines and UXO.
In recognition that the bourgeoning sector needed a headquarters and research centre, a group of countries decided Switzerland would be an appropriate base. In 1998, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-mining (GICHD) opened to support the mine action efforts of the international community and United Nations. The GICHD is an independent organisation supported by Austria, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Republic and Canton of Geneva. (www.gichd.ch
The need for data and international standards
During the 1990s mine action operated in a data-free environment; there was little reliable data on the numbers or locations of mine areas. No one knew how many accidents there really were every year or how many years it would take to clear the mines. For years agencies operated largely independently with little centralisation of information. Now, in addition to more clearance teams, commercial agencies and NGOs, there are also different international tools, which help evaluate mine-affected areas. Minefield surveys, socio-economic assessments of needs, data collection on mine victims and information management systems all have radically improved the situation from just a decade ago.
The mine action sector has spent much of the last decade perfecting operating procedures for every aspect of mine clearance. Mine risk education has become one of the most regularised and coordinated sectors of humanitarian assistance. The clearance of Kosovo after the withdrawal of the Yugoslavian forces was a remarkable in terms of speed and coordination. The UN Mine Action Centre for Kosovo tightly coordinated both donors and operators to complete systematic clearance in less than three years.
But Kosovo was expensive. It was a small land mass and had the attention of most western donors; few other countries have benefited from the same level of international resolve to solve their mines problems so fast.
The continual challenge of mine clearance
Despite the advances made in the sector, the scale of landmine contamination far outstrips the capacity to clear them. The additional assistance of mine detection dogs and mechanical devices speeds up the work but the majority of teams are men with detectors and prodders conducting what one field operator described as a cross between "archaeology and gardening". Although there has been massive investment in research to detect mines more swiftly, a technical solution continues to elude designers and engineers.
"An area with some improvement, but not as much as people had hoped, is the development of technology [to assist mine clearance,]" Martin Barber explained to IRIN as he outlined some new experiments using rats and bees to assist locating TNT underground. For McGrath and many field operators, who after a decade still use men with prodders to locate mines, most investments of this kind have been fruitless and a diversion of money. "Continued diversion of funds that could be used for mine clearance - towards unrealistic and sometimes irrelevant research projects - should especially be stopped," he told IRIN.
Deminers and subsistence farmers working close together. Demining is so slow that villagers have to take grave risks to bring in a harvest.
Credit: MAG/Sean Sutton
Signatories of the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines have a particular responsibility to ensure mine clearance occurs at an urgent pace with 2009 as the official target date for a mine-free world. Although this deadline applies for the first 45 countries that signed the treaty, the countries that acceded subsequently all have different deadlines. "Afghanistan and Angola have a 2013 deadline for meeting this obligation," Barber told IRIN.
Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty requires the "destruction of all anti-personnel mines in mined areas ... " The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and others use the term "mine-free" to express the central goal of eradicating mines. Now, as already 50 percent of the time period has passed, the ICBL and other observers are concerned that some signatories and affected countries are increasingly using terms such as "mine-safe", "risk-free" or "impact-free" to describe their aspirations. The concern is a blurring of objectives as it becomes apparent that many countries will fail to meet the 2009 deadline.
Despite the considerable cost of mine clearance and the massive logistical and organisational challenges mine clearance presents, some feel the core issue is funding. McGrath, also the former founder of the British NGO, the Mines Advisory Group, told IRIN current funding contributions were "nowhere near enough. Unexploded ordnance clearance and mines will always be a problem because it relies on state funding. If funding continues at present levels we will be nowhere near the treaty clearance target."
A core group of committed commercial and non-governmental mine clearance agencies with increasing expertise have been operating for the last decade. According to mine action experts they could increase the level of their activities, which are currently limited by funding. McGrath told IRIN that donors need to expand their vision and use the ample manpower resources every mine-affected country has at their disposal through "establishing a sustainable mine action indigenous capacity, supported by donors," adding that this "must be central to any mine action response".
After rapid growth in mine action funding in the 1990s, donors have essentially stabilised funding levels in recent years. This lack of growth means the 2009 target will be impossible for most countries to meet. Although the Landmine Monitor estimated in 2002 that global funding for mine action totalled US $309 million, this total came from contributions of 23 or more donors. The clearance of mines and mine areas comes down to a numbers game: the more clearance teams there are in each country, the faster they will complete the work. For example, the high levels of donor interest and will and numerous operators on the ground made clearing Kosovo a fast operation.
Ambassador Petritsch, president-designate of the Nairobi summit, is more optimistic about most countries meeting the summit's 2009 clearance deadline and admits it will be a challenge, but feels the affected countries need to pull their weight too. "It's very important for the affected countries to have national plans of action and to bring them to the conference and to use the conference as a spring-board for soliciting assistance ... it will be a clear indication of how seriously they take the matter in their own country," he told IRIN.
One of the harsh truths the conference in Nairobi will have to face is that the number of those killed and injured each year by landmines will continue in exact inverse proportion to the speed of clearance. The speed of clearance is directly related to organisation and management of clearance teams and available technologies but predominantly, the ICBL and field operators agree, it is related to funding. For McGrath, "It will be many years and many people will die and be maimed ... unless we learn to fund peace as readily as conflict."