The Month in Mines, March 2012, by Landmines in AfricaPosted: April 5, 2012
March 1, 2012 represented the 13th anniversary of the entry into force of the Mine Ban Treaty. The mine action community celebrated this event by launching the “Lend Your Leg” campaign and video (YouTube) that concluded on April 4th, the International Mine Action and Awareness Day (Voice of America). As with every month, March 2012 brought good news and bad from across the continent. Of especial importance is the accusation against a State Party – Sudan – of usage of anti-personnel landmines.
Angola announced clearance figures for demining in 2010 and 2011, covering an area equal to half a million football fields (soccer fields for those in the United States) and destroying almost half a million landmines in the process. Unfortunately, 77 people were killed or injured by landmines in 2011 serving as an urgent reminder of the necessity for continued clearance and mine risk education activities (All Africa). Angola has prioritized its demining activities to enable economic development activities so special focus has been made in and around the KwaZulu Transboundary Peace Park with clearance activities taking place along the border with Namibia (All Africa; All Africa; Angola Press Agency). Angola continues to expand it mine detection capabilities by training (All Africa) and a successful victim assistance program has been expanded for 2012 (All Africa).
Despite these positive strides, the sheer scale of landmine contamination in Angola means that the country will require additional time to meet its Treaty-mandated obligation to clear all territory of landmines. At the end of the month, Angola submitted a formal request to extend its Article 5 demining deadline by five years to accommodate on-going survey activities and to allow for continued clearance activities. The request does not come as a surprise as Angola’s mine action authorities had discussed the request with Landmine Monitor researchers in 2011. The request will be reviewed and deliberated upon the next Meeting of States Parties to Mine Ban Treaty which will convene in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2012 (All Africa; The Monitor).
Recognizing that we’ve switched continents briefly, March 2012 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain and the responsibility for clearing of the minefields laid during that conflict remains a point of contention between the two countries. However, a crew of Zimbabweans working for BACTEC has cleared almost 4 million square meters of land in the Falklands. Pity these highly skilled deminers could not be employed to clear minefields in their own country (Penguin News).
Democratic Republic of Congo
The explosion of a massive weapons depot in Brazzaville highlighted the dangers of unexploded ordnance in populated areas and launched new efforts in the Republic of Congo to eliminate arms depots and inform the public of the dangers of unexploded and abandoned ordnance. Almost a thousand kilometers away, in the war-ravaged eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the slow work of clearing minefields continues while the lingering impacts of landmines hampers development. Eight of DRC’s provinces are affected by landmines and the presence of those mines prevents farmers from being able to sell their produce in markets and reduce the dependency of the population on food assistance. The World Food Programme has launched a micro-credit scheme in Katanga Province in southeastern DRC, but the price of food due to the high cost of transport across mined roads means that the benefits of micro-credit are lost. Of course, recent budget issues have meant that one of the demining agencies active in the region, Danish Church Aid, has had to withdraw and stop working (All Africa).
In Kisangani, to the north of Katanga, continued support by the Japanese government has allowed mine clearance to continue and 4.2 square kilometers of previously mined land have been returned to the local villages. More than 12,000 people will be able to return to their homes engage in agriculture and other activities. The Japanese embassy has committed to continued support of demining elsewhere in eastern DRC (UNMAS, pdf).
Human Rights Watch reported that Libya’s Transitional National Council government has started the process of destroying the stockpiles of landmines maintained by the Gaddhafi regime. Since mid-February, more than two tons of mines have been destroyed by the Libyan Army Corps of Engineers with the assistance of the Swiss Foundation for Demining (FSD), the majority of which were anti-personnel mines (All Africa).
The US State Department is a major sponsor for demining and stockpile destruction in Libya, supporting the work of FSD and Mines Advisory Group to clear mines and performing mine risk education. The work is expected to continue for at least two more years (State Department). The International Committee of the Red Cross is also conducting mine risk education (MRE) in Libya and a major target for are the “street museums” created by Libyans to demonstrate the crimes of the Gaddhafi regime. These museums will display active landmines and pieces of unexploded ordnance in public areas where they can explode and kill or injure the persons who have created the museums or the people who have come to bear witness (ICRC). A missing component in the current mine action portfolio in Libya is victim assistance. The focus on stockpile destruction, mine risk awareness and demining is admirable, but much more needs to be done for the victims and for future victims.
A bomb that had been dropped during the Biafra war in the late 1960s exploded in the city of Enugu. This prompted the leader of the Ministry of Defence’s Humanitarian Deminers group to announce that several other bombs, including “conventional and locally made landmines” still posed a threat to the safety of Nigerians in war-affected areas of the country (All Africa). This statement challenges the claim made by the Nigerian government that the country is free of known landmine contamination and should be followed up by the States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty.
Sudan and South Sudan
A British charity has accused Sudan of using banned anti-personnel landmines against rebels in the southeastern region of the country. Dr. Mukesh Kapila, in his capacity as an advisor to the AEGIS Trust, reported the use of anti-personnel landmines by Sudanese Army members. AEGIS Trust’s area of expertise in anti-genocide campaigning and has been investigating possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nuba and Mukesh made the deliberate comparison between Darfur and Nuba. According to one report, Mukesh said, “Khartoum had been using anti personal (sic) landmine in schools and churches” (All Africa) and in another report quotes Mukesh, “I also saw the anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs that had been used in places where women and children go fetch water and firewood” (All Africa). Sudan has signed and ratified the Mine Ban Treaty and any use of anti-personnel landmines would represent a clear violation of Sudan’s responsibilities as a Party to the Treaty.
A spokesperson for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the rebel group fighting Khartoum in the Nuba Mountains, echoed Mukesh’s accusation and blames Iran for supplying Khartoum’s forces with the banned anti-personnel landmines. The spokesperson said, “The use of Iranian made… personnel landmines… prove beyond a doubt that the [Sudanese] government plan and strategy aim to continue its policies of genocide, ethnic cleansing against the Nuba population” (All Africa). The accusation against Iran also comes just as Iran host an international meeting on demining techniques and claims to adhere to all international demining treaties, despite not signing any (FARS News Agency).
Small Arms Survey published a report on anti-tank and anti-personnel mines that had been used by rebels in South Sudan. Most of the mines were Russian and Chinese-made anti-tank mines, however, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), a faction allied with Khartoum, was in possession of anti-personnel mines in Unity state and the South Sudan Democratic Army, also allied with Khartoum, also had anti-personnel mines (Small Arms Survey, pdf). Neither Sudan nor South Sudan should possess anti-personnel mines because Sudan was required to destroy its stockpile of anti-personnel mines by April 1, 2008, a deadline that was met long before the countries split, so the origin of these mines is a mystery that needs to be solved. If rebels in South Sudan are able to obtain anti-personnel mines, either from Khartoum or elsewhere, that’s a violation of non-export and non-transfer provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty.
On the positive side, the demining company MECHEM has been able to clear the mines laid by the SSLA on one of the major roads in Unity state, allowing travel by humanitarian actors. MECHEM continues to demine roads in Unity state to further ease delivery of food and humanitarian assistance (UNMAS, pdf).
The United Nations envoy for Western Sahara met with officials from Morocco, the POLISARIO Front representing the Saharawi people, Algeria and Mauritania in March to discuss, among other topics, demining along the berm which divides the disputed territory. Demining the berm is vital to allow free movement of people, animals and wildlife through the region. These talks will be followed by a visit from the envoy to the region in May (All Africa).
The conflict in southern Somalia between Al Shabab and the loosely allied forces of Kenya, Ethiopia, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) appears to be spreading from the south of the country towards the autonomous state of Puntland. In March, landmine blasts in Puntland marked the start of fighting between Puntland’s security forces and rebels allied to Al Shabab (All Africa; All Africa). Until recently, Puntland had managed to avoid most of the conflict in Somalia, but with Al Shabab being driven from its bases in Mogadishu and Baidoa, the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist force will be looking for new safe havens. In the meantime, Al Shabab has threatened to increase landmine and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against the forces it is fighting elsewhere. Al Shabab’s explosives were reported in Baidoa (All Africa), Beledweyne (All Africa), the airport in Hudur (All Africa), and Gedo (All Africa) demonstrating Al Shabab’s ability to harass and injure military and civilian targets. These attacks will also prevent the safe return of refugees currently in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
As many as 20% of the world’s landmines may remain in the ground in Egypt, representing a colossal demining challenge. Researchers at the Egyptian government research facility, the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology are exploring alternative techniques for disarming and defusing the extant landmines. One of the most recent ideas is to use a combination of plants and bacteria to locate, access and neutralize the landmines. First, a genetically engineered mustard plant will be planted by air across suspected mine fields. The mustard plant flowers a specific color in the presence of explosive materials. Then iron-eating bacteria will be introduced to the identified minefields to expose the explosive nitrogen products in the mine. Lastly, sugar beets (yes, you read that right) or tobacco will be planted (again by air) in the minefields. Beets and tobacco require enormous amounts of nitrogen and would absorb the nitrogen in the landmines, rendering the explosive material inert. The system makes sense in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way, and would represent the first time that tobacco products would actually save lives (Cutting Edge News).
Michael P. Moore, April 5, 2012