In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action

GLOBAL: Humanitarian Mine Action and the Nairobi Summit

The world is uniting to end suffering of this kind: Mine Victim in Cambodia
NAIROBI, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - At just 32 years old, Jose Brinco should be in the prime of his life. Instead, he is a victim of Angola's most horrifying legacy of war - landmines.

In 1994, a young Brinco and his wife were working hard in their maize fields. When he stepped on the anti-personnel mine, it was inevitable that his wife should try to help him. She didn't make it. She set off another mine and was killed instantly.

"I can't think too much about what has happened to me, otherwise my head goes crazy," he told IRIN.

Partially sighted and without his lower left leg after treading on the mine, Brinco, his clothes caked in dirt, is reduced to begging on the streets for a living. At night, on those same streets, he makes his bed.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the African continent, preparations are being made for an international, high-level conference that aims to assist mine victims like Brinco, and to rid the world of mines for future generations.

Nairobi will host a major summit on landmines from 29 November to 3 December 2004, and 600 delegates from over 140 national governments and international organisations are expected to attend. This will be the first Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997 and a historic occasion as it marks the halfway point between the treaty's establishment under international law in 1999, and the deadline in 2009 for most signatories to fulfil their treaty commitments. It will also be a time to take stock of the progress of a relatively new sector of humanitarian intervention and the remarkable efforts to address the devastation caused by anti-personnel landmines.

"We really are on the way to altogether ban and eliminate one kind of vicious weapon from the earth," the president-designate of the Summit on a Mine Free World, Austria's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Wolfgang Petritsch, told IRIN.

The fast track to Ottawa 1997

Largely as a result of increased media attention, by the early 1990s the world had begun to wake up to the human misery caused by anti-personnel landmines in war-ravaged countries from Asia to Africa. Two or three international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) started conducting limited clearance, while other NGOs and UN agencies were still wondering if the problem of mines was a humanitarian issue, or better left to the military. Then, after a surge of campaigning throughout the world, a convention was drawn up and signed in Ottawa in 1997. This turned the tide of history on these weapons and, according to the chief of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), Martin Barber, "consigned the anti-personnel landmine to the dustbin of history."

As a new humanitarian sector, humanitarian mine action (HMA) underwent unusually rapid growth in terms of activities and geographical spread. By international standards, the success of the Mine Ban Treaty is outstanding. The convention's widespread implementation and the zeal of many national signatories to ensure its commitments are met shows just how remarkable the convention and the mine ban movement is and explains why the Nairobi Summit on a Mine Free World deserves special attention.

Campaigners predict that new countries may use the opportunity of the summit to sign the treaty and raise the current number of 143 states already party to the Mine Ban Treaty. The participants at the summit are also expected to adopt an ambitious action programme to finish the task of ridding the world of mines, whether in warehoused stockpiles or laid in the ground.

Petritsch in Bosnia with Nobel Laureate Jody Williams 2004
Credit: Kerry Brinkert GICHD
The new action plan for 2005-2009

"This event will be a platform for commitments and a spring board for action," summit chair and Austrian Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch claimed. "I expect high-level leaders to renew political and resource commitments, further seize the responsibility to clear mined areas and assist victims and establish a concrete action plan," he said. Petritsch told IRIN he was confident that all the seventy points of the proposed action plan discussed at the conference would be adopted.

The summit also has the support of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan who has said the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention has made "remarkable progress" and he has urged governments to participate at the highest possible level.

In the early 1990s emerged a new awareness and urgency concerning the millions of landmines that plagued so many countries and caused so much suffering. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the civil war began the population was overwhelmed with landmines. Cambodia and northern Iraq were then highlighted as areas littered with landmines. By the middle of the 1990s the Balkans, Angola and Mozambique were added to the list of severely landmine-affected countries and the numbers of landmine victims soared. Today, the Landmines Monitor - an annual compendium produced as an initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) - claim 82 countries are in some way affected by landmines and/or unexploded ordnance (UXOs).

Many communities remain affected by landmines

Although a coalition of civil society groups and governments has successfully managed to stigmatise and outlaw landmines, the pace of clearance and assistance to mine victims continues to cause concern for many field operators. They point to thousands of mine-affected communities around the world who they say have not seen any benefits from the good intentions and millions of dollars poured into humanitarian mine action.

Rae McGrath, founder of the Mines Advisory Group, a British NGO, told IRIN he felt current funding levels of mine clearance were "nowhere near enough" and that, "there is no way that by 2009 mine clearance will be finished, or even remotely close ... in some countries they have hardly started." The year 2009 has been the year set as the treaty target for countries to work together to remove mines from affected countries worldwide. Although there are possibilities to extend the deadline, Nairobi conference organisers hope this will be a last resort. Ambassador Petritsch told IRIN he did not consider the deadline unrealistic but a "challenge".

Credit: MAG/Sean Sutton
Slow and dangerous work

Mine clearance is notoriously painstaking, expensive and dangerous work. Teams typically consist of men with metal detectors and prodders with occasional assistance from sniffer dogs and mechanical devices. Often working in punishing climates and in overgrown and remote terrain, they progress metre by metre. In many cases they are forced to spend the same amount of time checking suspected minefields as they do tackling live minefields.

Ordered and documented minefields are a very rare assignment for mine clearance teams - most work in a data-free environment with only rough estimations of the number and location of mines. Teams must spend a great deal of time clearing away years of overgrowth before they can check the ground for mines. In countries like Bosnia, Angola and Cambodia where mine clearance is considered most dangerous to civilians and most widespread, relatively limited progress has been made in reducing the total estimated area of threat despite the best efforts of the mine action community. Studies show the number of communities at risk from mines is far outweighed by the amount of land still requiring clearance and illustrates the improbability of the international community establishing a mine free world in the near future.

Yet, in Kosovo, mine clearance efforts were fully funded and it took only two and a half years before the state was considered mine-safe. "Although a lot of money was put in and it was expensive ... it was possible to finish it relatively quickly because the scope was small and the size of the mine problem immediately apparent," said Barber of UNMAS.

For McGrath the reason for slow progress is the low level of funding. He told IRIN, "Clearance will always be a problem because it relies on state funding. Until the 'polluter pays' [where belligerents in a conflict have to pay for post-conflict clearance] principle is recognised, most governments, including those party to the treaty, are far more willing to invest money in weaponry than in saving lives."

The neglected mine victims

The situation for mine victims remains bleak. Unlike stockpile destruction and mine clearance, no consideration was made when designing the treaty for the assistance of the hundreds of thousands of mine victims throughout the world.

"Frankly, it's very difficult to measure the extent to which governments are meeting their obligations to assist victims. Since there is no deadline it is not something that has attracted a lot of attention or focus," Barber told IRIN.

Most of the estimated 300,000 mine victims who have survived mine accidents live in the poorest countries of the world where surgical, medical and rehabilitation facilities are rare and even basic health care is in disarray, under-funded or non-existent.

Despite the emergence in the last decade of various agencies and international organisations trying to help mine victims, their needs vastly overwhelm the resources and facilities available. A mine blast survivor with one arm or one leg missing has become a common sight in many mine-affected communities but their needs are far greater than just a prosthetic limb replacement. Continued medical support and psychosocial assistance to enable mine victims to reintegrate into their communities are both needed. Employment and job training is central to mine victims long-term needs, which many say have been seriously neglected by the treaty and its signatories. The ICBL repeatedly draws attention to this neglect in its annual Landmine Monitor Report.

Ambassador Petritsch assured IRIN that the issue of mine victim assistance is one of the core issues to be discussed at the Nairobi summit, "which shows that it is at the center of our concerns".

But for Rae McGrath this is not enough. "The world has done nothing about victims," he told IRIN and he said he feels that whatever has been provided is limited and not related to the scale of the problem. "To be blunt, the best they can hope for are some prostheses, but more commonly they merely become subjects of endless surveys and have become the subjects of popular international voyeurism," he said to IRIN.

The need for redoubling of efforts to assist landmine victims was echoed by mine victim Margaret Arach Orech who lost her leg when the bus she was travelling in hit a mine in northern Uganda. "The major challenges concerning mine victims assistance are, firstly, holding governments responsible to their commitment in the Mine Ban Treaty to mine victims," she told IRIN. Orech is an active campaigner for victim's assistance.

Despite problems with assistance for victims, the humanitarian mine action sector is still remarkable in terms of how quickly it organised, international standards were established and global systems of information and coordination formed. Donors have also developed a deep engagement with the issues and work closely with NGOs, UNMAS and other institutions to coordinate and prioritise funding, which now comes from regular budget allocations rather than ad-hoc emergency donations, which was the case during the 1990s.

Unprecedented unity of civil society and governments

Governments, United Nations agencies and civil society are all working together in the knowledge that mine clearance is important at different levels of conflict resolution, post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, peace-building and human security. Anti-personnel landmines not only exact an unacceptable toll in terms of death and injury but also have important socio-economic, psychological and political ramifications.

Above all, the scourge of landmines has succeeded in uniting over 1,400 civil society organisations with more than 150 governments, all in agreement that the threat these mines pose to civilians and mankind is far greater than the strategic and military use they may have. This agreement has sown a mine action sector vigorously addressing a massive global problem armed with an effective Mine Ban Treaty seeking to ensure future generations will be free from the violence of mines. The Nairobi summit is all about creating a platform for governments to redouble their treaty obligations and commitments. Martin Barber sees the conference "like a vitamin-boost, a re-launch of energy for the next five years" and to accelerate the current momentum of mine action.

For Ambassador Petritsch the treaty is the result of a convention that works through agreed objectives between governments and civil society. He told IRIN that the reason the combined assault on landmines was working was because, "Basically the issue of landmines is about people, real people and about how we can work together to avoid future mine victims."

The vast number of senior diplomats, world leaders and civil society representatives that will gather at the Nairobi summit indicates the level of importance this meeting has for the participants; but for those working with mine victims and clearing mines the real evidence will be the increased resources made available to mine action in the next five years and beyond.
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A special thanks to the Mines Advisory Group and Sean Sutton for generous use of their excellent photos used extensively in this report.
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