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

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