So, are landmines in Africa really that big a deal? (Manifesto, Part 2)

In my last post I presented a very brief picture of the current landmine situation in Africa, but that did not provide any context for the severity of the problem.  534 Africans were killed or injured by landmines in 2009, but compared to the millions who died from HIV / AIDS, infectious disease or even injury, 534 is a very small number.  Landmines make up less than a tenth of one-percent of all deaths due to injury (auto accidents are the number one killer with 167,869 fatalities).  Of deaths due to war and conflict, landmines make up less than 2% of the total deaths (WHO 2008 Death and Regional Injury Estimates).  Compared to malaria (almost 112,000 deaths in Africa in 2009 out of more than 69 million cases; WHO World Malaria Report 2010) and HIV / AIDS (1.3 million deaths in 2009 out of 22 million persons infected;, landmine casualties are not even a rounding error.  So no, in the grand scheme of things, landmines would not appear to be a very big problem in Africa, especially in light of poverty, inequality, poor governance and a host of other issues facing the continent.  But for the 534 Africans killed or injured by landmines, their families and their communities, I think landmines remain an important issue and the fact that the potential exists for others to be killed or injured by landmines makes them a viable subject for action and attention.

According to the World Health Organization’s publication, “World Health Statistics 2010,” there were more cases of polio in Africa in 2009 (841) than landmine injuries, but I think polio may be a reasonable starting point for this discussion.  I, like many Americans, thought that polio had been eradicated; until I had to get vaccinated for polio before my first trip to Africa in 2004.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, possibly the biggest private development organization in the world, was started because Bill Gates was horrified by the fact that people could still be killed or crippled by polio forty years after the last reported case in the United States.  Yet the re-emergence of polio remains a very real possibility.  From those few hundred cases a year, a worldwide pandemic could ensue, causing major damage to the billions of unvaccinated people.  And one of the biggest consequences of a re-emergence of polio would be widespread fear.

In his book, “Polio, An American Story,” David Oshinsky talks about how fears of a polio outbreak affected people’s lives.  Public pools would be closed, movie theaters empty, schools unattended.  Children who suffered from polio (or were merely sick with a cold or flu during a polio outbreak) would be ostracized, forever marked by the leg braces and wheelchairs they depended upon for mobility.  Landmines have the ability to strike fear in people: when coupled with ongoing conflict or memory of conflict, that fear is compounded.  I was told of a hundred-mile highway in Angola that was cleared by a demining team.  In the course of the entire highway, only three landmines were found, but the knowledge that any mines were on the highway shut the entire road, limiting travel, trade and mobility.  Landmine victims are marked by their absent limbs and in many African countries, persons with disabilities are hidden from sight, unable to participate in community or society. 

Beginning in the 1940s with the March of Dimes and the sponsorship of President Roosevelt, great strides were made to eliminate polio.  The Salk and Sabin vaccines were made widely available, but still the disease lingers in various corners of the globe.  In the 1990s, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, its visibility raised by the actions of Princess Diana, initiated the global ban on landmines, but still landmines litter the borders of nations and mark old battlegrounds.  Earlier this year, the Libyan government became only the second government in three years to actively emplace landmines, but 50 other countries still retain the right to use landmines and between them they possess tens of millions of weapons. 

The poverty, conflict, disease burden and corruption present in Africa today makes eradication of landmines harder there than it might be in other places.  So landmines are not just an issue unto themselves, but bound up within a web of other issues that need to be addressed simultaneously.  As some have pointed out (see, there is a link between mine action and development and mine action can help states achieve their Millennium Development Goals (we can discuss later or elsewhere the validity and utility of the MDGs).  By focusing on the eradication of landmines, we can work on issues of poverty, governance and conflict, reducing the immediate impact of landmines in Africa whilst also beginning to tackle some of the larger, intertwined issues.

We have made great strides to eliminate these horrific things, but we cannot be complacent and we must continue the work.  As the Gates Foundation adopted the eradication of polio as its first signature campaign, landmine activists must continue to work to rid the world of the remaining landmines.  So no, landmines may not be the biggest deal in Africa or elsewhere in the world, but every 18 hours in Africa in 2009, a person was killed or injured by a landmine and that’s just plain wrong.  Much as we can eliminate polio, we can eliminate landmines.  Unfortunately, the trend lines may be reversing.  Annual polio cases are increasing and two African conflicts, in Libya and in the Southern Kordofan state of Sudan, saw new use of landmines in 2011 and increased casualties.  2011 may be the first year since the Mine Ban Treaty was signed in which landmine casualties will increase from the previous year, making landmines a bigger deal. 

 Michael P. Moore, July 29, 2011

The Current Landmine Situation in Africa (July 2011)

Let’s start with a baseline: what is the current landmine situation in Africa?  According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Egypt, Libya and Somalia are the only African countries who have not signed or ratified the Mine Ban Treaty; of the three Libya is the only one without a participating member in the ICBL, Somalia has eight.  Since the early stages of the mine ban movement, African states and civil society have been major participants and responsible for much of the progress.  Ken Rutherford credits Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s leadership on the issue for bringing much-needed momentum to the mine ban treaty negotiations in the mid-1990s, especially since South Africa had been a significant producer and exporter of landmines under the Apartheid regime.  The first review conference of the Mine Ban Treaty took place in Nairobi in 2004 leading to a re-investment in victim assistance and identifying the 25 states with the greatest responsibility to act on behalf of landmine victims.  In addition to policy leadership, four African states that had been affected by landmines, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tunisia and Zambia, have declared themselves to be mine-free.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that of those 25 countries with the greatest need and greatest responsibility, 11 (Angola, Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda) are in Africa and Egypt and Somalia would also have made the list had they been parties to the Mine Ban Treaty.  The enormous number of refugees and displaced persons on the continent mean that there is a constant flow of people to and from conflict areas and the continent remains mired in multiple conflicts.  In 2011, there have been reports of new use of landmines in Libya and Sudan.  30 African countries are still affected by landmines and other explosive remnants of war and 534 landmine casualties were reported in 19 African countries in 2009 (Somalia alone accounted for 126 of those casualties). 

One of the obligations of parties to the Mine Ban Treaty is to clear all known mined areas within 10 years of ratifying or acceding to the Treaty. This year Algeria, DRC and Eritrea requested additional time to meet that obligation whilst Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Uganda and Zimbabwe had previously had such requests approved and continue to try and meet those obligations.  The delay in clearing mines means the risk of injury and death from landmines continues in those nine countries and more and more countries are requesting extensions as their clearance deadlines approach. 

That’s the view from ten thousand feet.  A little closer to the ground and we see some positive signs and some negative ones:

In Angola, progress continues to clear the extant minefields from that country’s civil wars.  In 2010, over 5,000 landmines were removed, freeing more than 1,000 km of roads and 76 million square meters of land for use (Angola Press Agency, 11-MAR-2011).

Whilst Nigeria was able to declare itself as mine-free, some sources suggest that tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance remain in the ground from the Biafra War (Daily Champion, 16-MAR-2011).

One thousand Congolese were forced to re-settle on an improperly cleared minefield in Kisangani to allow space for economic development (UN IRIN, 4-APR-2011).

The Japanese government, despite the tsunami and nuclear disaster, pledged to continue its support to mine action in Mozambique; a pledge that keeps Mozambique on target for becoming mine-free in 2014 (Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique, 15-FEB-2011 / Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique, 5-APR-2011)

The rebels fighting the Gaddhafi regime in Libya pledged not to use landmines in their struggle (Human Rights Watch, 29-APR-2011).

The sanctions against Zimbabwe mean that minefields leftover from the civil war in the 1970s remain intact.  The government estimates that $100 million is required to clear the remaining landmines (Zimbabwe Independent, 23-JUN-2011).

290,000 Somalis were warned of the dangers posed by landmines through mine risk education despite the ongoing violence and humanitarian crisis there (UNDP 18-MAR-2011).

Humanitarian aid is undelivered to regions of South Sudan due to landmines being laid by militias along the roadways (UN IRIN 6-JUN-2011 / UN IRIN 13-JUN-2011).

Lastly, a school in Western Uganda was using an unexploded bomb as a bell.  The bomb was discovered when a mine risk education team came to the school to make a presentation and a teacher rang the “bell” by hitting it with a rock to call the students to order.  The bomb was removed immediately for demolition (The Daily Monitor, 3-JUL-2011).

So, the overall situation is a mixed one.  We see some successes and some failures, but the general trendline appears to be positive.  Good.  Let’s keep it that way.

Michael P. Moore, July 27, 2011.

Landmines in Africa Manifesto

The Washington Post on June 5, 2011 published the following story between brief pieces about the Pope’s visit to Croatia and a mayor in Mexico arrested for possession of illegal firearms:

Land mines return to southern Sudan, U.N. official says: A resurgence of military conflict in southern Sudan has resulted in the laying of new land mines, reversing the progress made to clear the south of mines after two decades of civil war, a U.N. mining expert said. The new mines are resulting in civil and military casualties and are preventing aid groups from helping populations in the greater Upper Nile region, where several rebel militias are battling the southern army.

This item shows one of the biggest potential threats to the success of the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines that resulted in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, renewed conflict.  In the early 1990s when the threat of landmines became a global story and a cause célèbre, civil war and international war had erupted throughout the world as a result of the end of the Cold War.  Long-simmering rivalries and tensions that had been sublimated by the competing powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were unleashed in Africa, Europe and Central Asia.  These conflicts followed the Central American civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua and the South American wars in Colombia and Peru which had spread mines through the Western Hemisphere.  In this period an estimated 20,000 people were killed or injured by landmines every year; one new victim every 20 minutes. 

The 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (Mine Ban Treaty) was a watershed moment: the first treaty to ban outright the usage of a weapon that had been used by dozens of armies and was possessed by half of the countries of the world.  The ban was justified on the basis of the immense humanitarian damage caused by landmines and their indiscriminate nature; their inability to distinguish between friend and foe, combatant or civilian.  The campaigners sought to deliberately stigmatize the use of the landmines and through this stigma, shame armies and nations to stop their use. 

And they were mostly successful.  Three-quarters of all states in the world have banned landmines and only one country’s army, Myanmar, still uses them.  But there may be a second factor at play in the decline in the use of landmines.  With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War came to an abrupt end.  Client states of both the United States and the Soviet Union suddenly lost their sponsors and a great many states – once seen as stable allies of one side of the Cold War – suffered spasms of violence.  In Europe and Central Asia new countries emerged from the ashes of former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union whilst in Africa, rebel movements made advances against previously unassailable strong men. Civil wars became the new normal as dozens of countries plunged into conflict.  Driven by ethnic entrepreneurs and fueled by arms made available from Cold War stockpiles, these wars spilled into neighboring countries spreading violence and displacement across three continents. 

Since a high of 53 concurrent conflicts in 1992, the world has slowly become more peaceful with 36 concurrent conflicts reported in 2009 (2003 was the most “peaceful” year with only 29 conflicts globally).  The decrease in violence and conflict was accompanied by a decrease in the number of victims of landmines; according the Landmine Monitor, there were 3,956 reported landmine injuries in 2009 (534 in Africa).  My fear is this: that as conflict recurs, so too will the use of landmines.  They are cheap, easily made and effective.  For poorly resourced rebel armies, landmines (or as they are so often referred to in Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices or IEDs) are an attractive weapon.  That’s why although only the Burmese army uses landmines, rebel forces in half a dozen countries use them.  I predict that if more rebel movements emerge, we will see an increase in the number of landmine victims. 

There are also indications that as other states become “pariah” states like Burma, their adherence to the landmine ban will end.  If a regime is willing to target and kill civilians to keep control (in blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions and any number of human rights treaties), what would stop that regime from using banned weapons if it possesses them? Humanitarian arguments will not prevent a threatened regime from using whatever means at its disposal to maintain power.  The Libyan army under Moammar Ghaddafi (or however you wish to spell it) used landmines against rebels based in Benghazi earlier this year.  The declared stockpiles of countries that are party to the Mine Ban Treaty total over 13.6 million and the estimated stockpiles of countries not party are at least ten times that; meaning that there are almost 200 million landmines available for use.  Until those stockpiles are destroyed, the risk is immediate.

In Africa, 4,750 square miles are affected by landmines (an area the size of Connecticut), effectively closing off that land for any productive purposes.  Since much of Africa is still dependent on household farming and Africa is the most food insecure continent, the continuing presence and threat of landmines there has a greater impact than it might elsewhere.  I recognize that of all the pressures facing the continent – HIV / AIDS, drought, corruption, political repression, civil rights abuses, rape, infectious disease, poverty, climate change, etc. – landmines may be a relatively low priority, but for the people who are victims or potential victims of landmines, they are a very real threat to life and livelihood. 

This blog will probably touch on a lot of issues related to landmines in Africa, because the landmine issue does not fit neatly into a single category.  Landmines are a part of conversations about conflict, development, human rights and governance.  Government and inter-government agencies focusing on landmines are cross-cutting and my coverage shall be as well.  I will try to champion those who are making a difference and highlight where I see failed policies and practices.  Every day, at least a dozen people are killed or injured by landmines, of those, one and a half are in Africa.  In my years of working with landmine victims in Africa and elsewhere, I met people who had overcome the most horrific experiences to try and do something as simple as survive.  My challenge will be to honor them. 

Michael P. Moore, July 25, 2011