The Month in Mines by Landmines in Africa, April 2012

April 4th is the annual International Day for Mine Action and Awareness and as a result, we often a number of new programs and partnerships announced, as well as missives and statements from a variety of actors.  The only other time of year that generates as much activity is the annual meeting of States Parties and the coincident publication of the annual edition of the Landmine Monitor in late November / early December.  This April did not disappoint with announcements coming from Zimbabwe and the Vatican.  In addition, at the end of the month, the continuing danger to deminers in Africa was highlighted as four men working under contract to the United Nations were arrested by Sudan.

 

International Day of Mine Action and Awareness

Many organizations repeated their support for the Mine Ban Treaty or urged compliance and adoption of the Treaty by non-States Parties as part of celebrations for the International Day of Mine Action.  The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) launched the “Lend Your Leg” campaign to raise awareness about the suffering of landmine victims, gaining support and demonstrations from government officials and celebrities around the world (Voice of America).  The campaign was accompanied by a website (www.lendyourleg.org) where anyone could pledge their support for landmine survivors and a video (YouTube) with celebrity and official endorsements (and demonstrations).  At the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, an exhibition of photographs of landmine victims was opened and United Nations missions around the world participated in celebrations and awareness-raising events (Afrique Ligne).

In Liberia, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation declared that the suffering caused by landmines could be greatly reduced if all states would join and implement the Mine Ban Treaty (All Africa).

In Algeria, the mine clearance officials of the Algerian army gave an update on clearance work, pointing out that three million landmines remain in the ground, remnants from French responses to the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Algerian official re-iterated the country’s intent to meet its revised 2017 deadline to complete all demining (Defence Web).

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI praised mine action actors during his address to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square (AKI).  Later in the month, Catholic Bishops in the United States revealed that they had signed a letter along with 75 other organizations urging President Obama to sign and submit the Mine Ban Treaty for ratification by the Senate (Catholic News Agency).

In Mozambique, the Deputy Foreign Minister called for continued vigilance on the part of his countrymen on landmines and encouraged persons who discover mines to report them to the appropriate authorities rather than tamper or touch the mines.  The number of mine victims in Mozambique has dropped dramatically to a low of only three people in 2011 (although that is still three too many) and Handicap International continues to clear minefields despite financial constraints (All Africa).

In Virginia, on the campus of James Madison University, the Marshall Legacy Institute and the Center for International Stability and Recovery (formerly the Mine Action Information Center) hosted a mine-detection dog demonstration (The Breeze).

In Moammar Gaddhafi’s hometown of Sirte, Libya, more than 700 perople came out to celebrate the day and receive mine risk education materials from the mine action organizations active in the country (JMACT Libya).

In Great Britain, the charity, Find a Better Way, founded by football legend (I’m believe that’s his official title) Sir Bobby Charlton launched its website, www.findabetterway.org.uk, to support fundraising and research into better means of detecting landmines (Knutsford Guardian).

And in South Sudan, a mine-detection dog training facility was opened in Juba by the Mine Actions Coordination Center and the South African demining company, MECHEM.  To date, MECHEM has used dogs to clear over 400 kilometers of roads in Unity State, along the border with Sudan, and the facility will enable more dogs to be deployed in the country (UNMISS).

That was the good news…

 

Zimbabwe

At the end of March, Zimbabwe submitted a third request for an extension of its Article 5 demining obligations (AP Mine Ban Convention), and that request seems to have sparked some renewed interest in the landmine situation in Zimbabwe.  On the positive side, the HALO Trust signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Zimbabwe to assist in the clearance of landmines along the borders of the country, mines that were placed by the government of Rhodesia in the 1970s and earlier.  The partnership with HALO Trust, announced on the International Day of Mine Action and building on an already announced partnership with the ICRC, will update and augment the antiquated equipment currently being used by the Zimbabwe Army’s Corp of Engineers (All Africa).  In addition to assisting the Army, the HALO Trust will hire local Zimbabweans from mine-affected areas and train them to be deminers.  Many of the locals have engaged in “community demining,” the dangerous practice of mine clearance without proper training or equipment, so the willingness is there to conduct demining and now the skills and techniques will be available to ensure safety and comprehensiveness (All Africa).

To reinforce the need for improved equipment and techniques for demining in Zimbabwe, the Corp of Engineers announced that five deminers had been seriously injured in the course of their work over the last six years.  Despite the fact that the mines were laid in a regular pattern by the Rhodesian army in the 1970s, three decades of erosion, vegetation, weather and animal activities have contrived to disrupt the pattern and render the landmine placement unpredictable.  That unpredictability has contributed to the high number of injuries along with the poor quality of equipment and remoteness of the minefields (All Africa).

The continuing threat of landmines along the border areas of Zimbabwe have left those regions economically depressed and isolated.  Teachers are unwilling to move to the region and couriers and transport companies refuse to travel through the space out of fear of landmines.  For the people living in the area, the threat of injury or death from mines is very real, but flooding means that an area free of landmines one year may not be the next.  Once the region is demined, the local residents feel that economic opportunities will come to the border areas, but until then, poverty will be rife (All Africa).

 

Angola

Government  and non-government organizations working in mine action reported on clearance activities.  In Bié province, as many as 20 unexploded anti-personnel mines were destroyed by the HALO Trust (All Africa) and in Lunda Sul province, four landmines along with other pieces of unexploded ordnance were destroyed by the National Demining Institute (INAD).  Unlike the HALO Trust which sets its own demining priorities, INAD’s program of work is determined by the government’s developmental needs (All Africa).  Also in Bié, police seized illegal firearms from apparent moonshiners, one of whom possessed an anti-tank landmine (All Africa).

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the demining in Angola has lead to successes.  More than 1,000 deminers have been trained in recent years and several infrastructure projects, including an airport, a rail-line and fibre optic cables, have been completed.  There is still much to be done, especially for the 80,000 landmine victims living in the country (Defence Web).

 

Ethiopia

The German government donated 405 protective aprons for use by Ethiopian deminers from the Ethiopia Mine Action Office (EMAO).  This grant of equipment is part of the larger commitment of the Germans to demining and mine action in Ethiopia, a commitment worth 2.2 million euros to date (All Africa).

 

Somalia

While events in Mali, Guinea-Bissau and the Sudans (more on this in a moment) have grabbed the headlines on conflict in Africa, the war in Somalia continues on.  Al Shabaab relies on insurgency tactics, especially improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines for ambushes, as it harasses the armies of Kenya and Ethiopia and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Al Shabaab killed three Ethiopians in a landmine attack on a convoy passing through central Somalia (All Africa).  In the market in Al Shabaab’s former stronghold of Baidoa, twelve people, civilians and government soldiers, were killed and seven others wounded by a landmine targeting the nearby police station (RBC Radio).

Al Shabaab’s landmines and IEDs are in addition to the thousands of landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the country as a result of the twenty-year civil war in the country.  Continuing displacement of Somalis puts people at risk as they travel through unfamiliar, mine-affected regions in search of food and security.  Somalia’s security forces have asked the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and the Danish Demining Group (DDG) to focus on mine risk education for civilians in an attempt to minimize casualties (Press TV).

 

Libya

In Libya the cleanup continues with the Joint Mine Action Coordinating Team (JMACT) Libya managing the demining and risk education processes.  The main focus in Libya seems to be on small arms and unexploded ordnance, but the discovery of anti-tank mines by the Mines Advisory Group points to the continuing hazard of landmines in the country.  Interestingly, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) has had to close down several of its projects in Libya (a grant from the Canadian government is enabling FSD to remain operational and active in Sirte) due to the fact that FSD’s grants came to an end in March of this year.  It is important that as the headlines move to other countries that funding for mine action continues in Libya because the problem is so large and will require vast resources to make the nation safe for the nascent regime (JMACT Libya).

 

The Sudans

Sudan and South Sudan are at the precipice of war.  Sudanese air forces have been bombing sites in South Sudan while South Sudan has mobilized to seize the contested town of Heglig, near the also-contested region of Abyei.  South Sudan has existed for less than a year as a nation, but already appears to be willing to go to war against Sudan over the oil that lies underneath South Sudan but must pass through Sudan for refining.  Negotiators are frantically trying to avoid outright hostilities, but the first shots were fired long ago with both sides supporting proxy armies operating in the other country (BBC News).  Those proxy armies have been responsible for extensive mine-laying in South Sudan and fighting in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

There are no innocent parties in this conflict, but the international community needs to be careful of a repeat of what happened in the former Yugoslavia.  In Bosnia, sanctions and arms embargoes were levied against all parties and the conflict was often referred to as a “civil war” with centuries of ethnic tension fueling it.  That was wrong.  Serbians in Bosnia were the aggressors in a war of invasion and killed and raped thousands while receiving assistance and cover from Belgrade.  Bosnian Muslims and Sarajevans were isolated by the sanctions and embargoes and lacked an international partner to protect them.  By calling the conflict a civil war, the international community was able to absolve itself of responsibility and the guilt over that inaction is what led to NATO’s eagerness to protect Kosovo some years later.

In the Sudans, the international community has condemned all parties, but Sudan has been the greater aggressor: interfering with the referendum on Abyei’s status (BBC News), bombing civilians and refugee camps, and appointing a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur as governor of South Khordofan (BBC News).  The United Nations and the United States have threatened both sides with sanctions in a mis-guided attempt to be fair, but the simple fact is that Sudan does not deserve to be treated equally to South Sudan.  So far, Sudan and the Khartoum regime have attempted to undermine and thwart South Sudan at every opportunity and it was only when South Sudan mobilized and seized Heglig that the international community responded.  The new nation deserved better treatment and protection from the international community.  Instead, the international community is repeating the mistakes of Bosnia, calling this an equal fight; it’s not.  Sudan has a history of war crimes but also a history of impunity; no one has been brought to justice for Darfur and no one will be brought to justice over South Khordofan, Nuba or Abyei as long as the international community is so weak and timid as to abdicate its role to protect South Sudan against Sudan.

At the end of April, four deminers working for the United Nations in South Sudan were arrested by Sudanese forces.  Sudan claims that the deminers, a Briton, Norwegian, South African and South Sudanese, were captured in Heglig shortly after the Sudanese army had retaken the town from South Sudan.  Sudan claims that because the men have some military training (many deminers do), they were foreign military advisors supporting South Sudan.  The United Nations said the deminers were in South Sudan at the time of their arrest traveling between two United Nations bases and working strictly on humanitarian programs (All Africa).  In the aftermath of the seizure of Danish Demining Group employees in Somalia, the arrest of the four deminers in South Sudan shows the danger that deminers put themselves in to conduct mine action work in ongoing conflict zones.  It also demonstrates that Sudan is unafraid of provoking the United Nations or European nations and creating a diplomatic furor.

Michael P. Moore, May 3, 2012

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