In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action
AFRICA-ASIA: Interview with Martin Barber, Director of the UN Mine Action Service
NEW YORK, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Ahead of the coming Mine Action Summit in Nairobi, the director of the UN's Mine Action Service (UNMAS), Martin Barber, told IRIN that despite the immense challenges remaining, the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997 has made major progress towards ridding the world of anti-personnel mines (AMPs). Barber stated that he would like to see the Nairobi summit focus on "eliminating the occurrence of new mine victims" and seeing countries focus on clearing high-priority mines adversely impact daily life and community reconstruction or development.
QUESTION: What, in your view, has made the Mine Ban Treaty so successful, given that it was signed only five years after the campaign for banning landmines started?
ANSWER: It was a combination of things. First, a frustration among a number of governments about the slow pace of negotiations in the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) and the fact that they had been negotiating for many years, but didn't feel they were getting anywhere.
Second, was the fact that in the early to mid-90s, the consequences of the widespread use of anti-personnel mines in internal conflicts had become horrifyingly apparent as the Soviet troops left Afghanistan - as the UN mission went to Cambodia in 1992 - during the mission in Mozambique in the early 1990's and in Angola. These four countries were coming out of prolonged conflict and there was a realisation that the return to peace was going to be significantly threatened by the presence of anti-personnel landmines, which were killing and maiming people at every turn.
Third, was the extremely effective advocacy campaign, including the use of people such as Princess Diana to bring the matter into people's living rooms and to their TV screens to the extent that governments began to think, 'Yes, why don't we [ban landmines]'?
Fourth was the testimony of respectable military commanders that anti-personnel mines were more dangerous to people who laid them then they were to the enemy.
One last element was perhaps the commitment of the Canadian government and Lloyd Axworthy [former Canadian Foreign Minister] to push this through. This was very influential. He basically challenged himself and everyone else to come back a year later with an agreed international convention and he did.
Q: From your perspective, what progress has been made? And what specifically have been the strengths of the movement to rid landmines?
A: In terms of specific achievements, the first obligation that state parties entered into was to destroy their stockpiles within four years of acceding to the convention. The first 45 States met that obligation on time in March 2003 and progressively as the convention came into force in different countries. They came up against this deadline four years after acceding [to the convention]. Quite remarkably, so far, every country that has come up to the deadline has met it. That's a remarkable achievement.
Secondly, the ban on production - before 1997, it was estimated that about 55 countries produced anti-personnel mines. That number is now reduced to 15, of which, none are state parties to the convention. We know that they retain the capacity to produce, but so great now is the stigma of being a mine producer that we are not actually sure that any of these countries are actually producing. It seems that production is way down.
Next, the legal trade in anti-personnel mines appears to have stopped. Even countries that have not banned them are not currently involved in the trade.
Q: Who is planting landmines now?
A: Rebel groups are planting landmines in Columbia, even though the government is a state party. In Myanmar, not a state party, we believe the problem to be quite significant. In Chechnya there's a serious problem. In the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, there is some evidence that landmines are still being used. We're talking four or five countries that are still using them. Also, in the build up of tension in 2002 between Pakistan and India, there were reports of new mines being laid along the border, but only briefly.
Q: Do you see the failure of nations like India, Pakistan and the US not signing the treaty, as a major weakness?
A: In one sense, of course, it is a weakness as it means that the treaty has not been "universalised". But in another sense - the fact that there is no international trade - the fact that no one seems to be producing them anymore and the number of countries where they are currently being used, is down to three or four. In that sense, the fact that these countries are outside the convention is not as significant as you might assume.
Q: In places like Kosovo, it is clear that landmine clearance has been quick. In other places, it's been very slow. What's ... [your view on this?]
A: The Kosovo programme ran for two and a half years and basically did the job. The landmine problem in Kosovo was of limited scope. The mines were used there over a relatively short period and largely in conformity with established military practice, so we're talking about known mine fields. Although a lot of money was put in and it was expensive, it was possible to finish it relatively quickly because the scope of it was small and the size immediately apparent.
The problem in the worse affected areas is that landmines have been used over a much longer period and in an undisciplined way - as nuisance mines, scattered without being marked or reported and covering vast areas. The four countries that have the most serious landmine problem are Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and, in the European context, Bosnia. In Afghanistan, we made very good progress over the last 10-12 years in dealing with the known former Soviet Union minefield threats.
In Cambodia, a lot of work has been done, but unfortunately a lot of work remains. There was a tragic situation in the early part of this year because casualty rates started to go up rather than down. Unfortunately, this is a result of economic development, expansion of lands under cultivation and reclaiming new lands that haven't been cultivated for 20 or 30 years. Casualties were sustained during the spring-cultivating season, as people moved back into mined areas. The same would be true of Angola, which has a big problem and a long way to go.
Q: Are people doing enough?
A: Well, we believe that the targeting of clearance work has improved considerably over the last five years. We no longer have the old 'let's-take-mines-out-of-the-ground' approach. Our approach now is, 'Where are mines having an impact? - Where are people being blown up? - Where do mines prevent people from getting to their water supply'? So it's about impact targeting. I think this has improved considerably.
An area with some improvement, but not as much as what people had hoped, is the development of technology.
Q: Are you of the view that the money invested in technology in this field, 'looking for a silver bullet', could start paying off?
A: Yes, provided it's focused on the three or four developments that can make a difference. The one I mentioned is clearly one of them. Every [mine action] survey comes up with the need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the handheld detector.
The second area where we need a technological advance is in what we call 'area reduction'. How do you quickly establish the limits of a mined area without putting people at risk? Some of the techniques used in the past involve dogs that can smell the vapor as it comes through the surface, but there are limits to using dogs, such as the weather and terrain. A number of other technologies are being trial [run/used], which capture air samples, takes them to a laboratory and then a dog or rat checks the sample. Certain types of rats can be trained very quickly and it appears that they are more reliable than dogs in determining that - bees can also be trained to swarm at the sight of an explosive trace and can tell you if an area within two acres is cleared.
Q: How realistic is it that people will meet respective deadlines?
A: There is provision in the treaty for countries to request a further 10-year extension if they are unable to meet their deadlines. A proposal that we put forward for the Nairobi conference is that all countries commit themselves to eliminating all high-impact-mine areas by 2009. In Nairobi, countries will be encouraged to focus on high and then medium-priority areas. It's quite clear that a few countries are not going to be able to meet their first 10-year deadline because they simply don't have the resources and the international community is not going to be able to give the resources required to complete clearing low-priority areas.
Q: Do see any special provisions for mine victims at the Nairobi conference?
A: We feel that the focus needs to be on eliminating the occurrence of new victims - reducing the number of victims as close to zero as possible. There is going to be a big focus on mine victims at Nairobi. There's going to be a survivors' summit the morning of the 28 November, where 50-60 landmine survivors will meet with some key senior political officials from a dozen countries and have a dialogue, and agree on the text of a survivor's declaration. At the end of the conference on December 3, the survivors' declaration will be handed to the Secretary-General with the formal documents that have been agreed [upon].
Q: You mentioned that military commanders said that mines were not the most effective of weapons. Given that and the definition of an APM, are we going see a situation where technology sees landmines made redundant, but are replaced by other equally devastating weapons, such as cluster bombs?
A: I'm not sure I would put it quite like that. The distinguishing feature of a landmine is that it is victim activated. The second is that it doesn't get switched off at the end of the war. Any other weapon that might replace mines should have neither of those particularly lethal characteristics. They should be 'command detonated' [i.e., only go off when they are launched]. So, I suspect that alternatives are not going to carry the features that made landmines so indiscriminate and unscrupulously deadly. That's the good thing.
Q: Lastly, what specific aspects would you like to see come out of the Nairobi summit?
A: I think the Nairobi summit is really like a vitamin boost, a re-launch of energy for the next five years. I would like to see a recognition that we need to tackle the problem in mine-affected countries with a holistic approach to include the problem of explosive remnants of war. There are basically four types of ordnance that we have to deal with: anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, unexploded ordnance and abandoned unexploded ordnance, such as ammunition dumps. In a country like Iraq or Afghanistan, the extent of abandoned ordnance is vast.