Speaking Too Soon: Are Mine-Free Countries Really Mine-Free?

I have spoken out in previous posts against states that have submitted Article 5 Extension requests, seeking additional time to meet the Mine Ban Treaty’s obligation to clear all mined areas within ten years of the Treaty entering into force.  My concern is that many states do not begin the demining process promptly and then use the extension process to ask for forgiveness for the delays.  The good news is that 10 countries in Africa have declared themselves to be mine-free, having cleared all national territory of anti-personnel landmines (International Campaign to Ban Landmines). By starting the demining process promptly after ratifying or acceding to the Treaty, most states should be able to complete the demining process within the ten-year period allowed by the Treaty. However, there is also a risk of proceeding too quickly with the demining process and recent reports test the claims of two of those “mine-free” countries, Burundi and Zambia and a lawsuit against the international demining company, Ronco Consulting, demonstrates the liability issues in declaring areas mine-free prematurely.

I would also like to point out that the Mine Ban Treaty only requires states to clear all anti-personnel landmines, not all unexploded ordnance or anti-vehicle mines.  Therefore, states should be clear when they declare themselves to be mine-free whether or not they include all unexploded ordnance in that declaration or only anti-personnel mines.


Early Question Marks

Burundi and Zambia are not the first African countries to have their mine-free claims challenged, only the most recent ones.  In 2008 Djibouti declared itself to be mine-free, but a border conflict with Eritrea in that same year appears to have led to new anti-personnel mine contamination.  In 2009 Djibouti reported to the Second of African Francophone Seminar on Mine and ERW Action that the country “had a residual problem of anti-personnel mines” (The Monitor).

In 2009 Namibia declared itself “in full compliance with Article 5” of the Mine Ban Treaty, repeating an assertion made in 2001 that all demining activities had been completed.  However, in 2009, the government of Namibia sought several hundred thousand dollars worth of funding to clear landmines along the Angolan border.  Australia and Canada have published warnings about the presence of landmines in the Namibian sections of the Okavango transborder park and Namibia reported at least one landmine accident to the Third Continental Conference of African Experts on Landmines in 2009, but did not disclose the location of the incident (The Monitor).


New Questions

In 2011, at the meeting of States Parties in Cambodia, Burundi declared itself to be mine-free.  After several years of work by Mines Advisory Group, Burundi completed clearance activities a full three years before its Treaty-mandated deadline of 2014.  Burundi was able to declare itself mine-free despite continued conflict in mine-affected regions that only concluded in 2010 (Reuters).  However, not even six months after the declaration of mine-free status, villagers living in the Rumonge nature reserve reported the presence of anti-personnel mines and a teenager was killed while gathering firewood.  A resident said “These devices [anti-personnel landmine] still exist on this reserve and the population is ready to collaborate with the technical demining team” (Networked Blogs).

At the Mine Ban Treaty’s second review conference in Cartagena, Colombia in 2009, Zambia declared itself to be mine-free (Voice of America).  Earlier this month, Zambia’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Mwenye Musenge, called on the Zambian government to provide more assistance to the Zambia Anti-Personnel Mine Action Centre (ZMAC).  In his call, Musenge pointed to the plight of landmine victims in Zambia while noting the “Western, Eastern and Southern provinces have been cleared of the landmines.”  Musenge said that ZMAC “has done almost 100 percent of its work of removing landmines,” suggesting that some landmines remain in the northern province, along the Angolan border (Daily Mail, emphasis added).

It is possible that the minefields in Zambia and Burundi were not recognized as such at the time the countries announced themselves as mine-free.  If that is the case, then, just as they are required to do if they discover previously unknown stockpiles of landmines, Burundi and Zambia should proceed to clear these landmines as soon as possible.  If the minefields were recognized at the time of the announcement or if the countries had not bothered to consider the possibility that there might be landmines in Rumonge reserve or the Northern province, then the countries were irresponsible in making their announcements.  More care and prudence might have prevented the death of the Burundian teen mentioned above.  In addition, a recent lawsuit may establish liability for those who prematurely declare areas mine-free.


Fantham versus Ronco Consulting

In April 2009, United Nations Mine Action Office Quality Assurance Officer Steve Fantham was injured by a landmine during a routine evaluation of a minefield south of Juba in what is now South Sudan.  Fantham’s right leg was amputated below the knee.  Despite his injury, Fantham returned to his quality assurance position less than six months after his accident with a renewed sense of purpose: Fantham now knew firsthand the potential damage that landmines could cause (United Nations Mission in Sudan, pdf).

For Fantham, the injury was unexpected.  As a mine action professional with many years of experience, he was familiar with the risks posed by landmines, but Fantham also knew that the minefield in which he was injured had been declared clear of mines by Ronco Consulting.  The United Nations had contracted with Ronco Consulting demine roadways in South Sudan, including the areas on each side of the roads.  In April 2008, Ronco declared the minefield where Fantham was injured to be clear of mines and after investigation, the United Nations found no evidence that new mines had been laid between Ronco’s clearance activities and Fantham’s injury.  Further, the United Nations team, in its investigation of Fantham’s accident found three other landmines in the area that Ronco had declared to be cleared.  The United Nations investigating team declared that Ronco should have found and cleared the mines.

Based upon the findings of the UN investigating team (which included a representative from Ronco), Fantham sued Ronco in United States court, claiming that Ronco’s negligence had led directly to Fantham’s injury (Fantham v. Ronco Complaint, pdf).  Shortly after filing the claim, Ronco settled the lawsuit with Fantham for an undisclosed sum of money (Fantham had sued for $10 million) without responding to or challenging the claim (Blake Hannafan).

Unfortunately, not every landmine victim who is injured by a landmine in a supposedly cleared minefield will be able to sue those who made the mine-free claim.  Many international demining organizations will be protected from lawsuits through their contracting mechanisms and national demining authorities will be protected by national sovereignty, and many landmine survivors will not have standing in the countries where international operators are registered.  Having said that, hopefully the Ronco case will ensure that deminers use caution when declaring minefields to be clear because of Fantham’s ability to sue and receive a settlement.

But countries also need to be cautious before declaring themselves to be mine-free.  If injuries from anti-personnel landmines occurred in Burundi and Zambia after the mine-free declarations, the other Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty should review the mine-free claims and force a re-assessment of minefields.  States should also be explicit about what the declaration of mine-free status actually means: does it include anti-vehicle mines and unexploded ordnance or only anti-personnel mines?  Will demining continue to clear all explosive remnants of war once the Treaty-mandate for clearing anti-personnel mines is met?  Every day there are new victims of landmines; we need to be sure those victims are not coming from areas that are thought to be mine-free.


Michael P. Moore, June 28, 2012


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