The Month in Mines, December 2012, by Landmines in AfricaPosted: January 4, 2013
The global story in December, as it usually is this time of year, was the annual Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and the concurrent release of the 2012 Landmine Monitor report. These two events always spark a lot of discussion and present the opportunity for states and civil society to discuss issues related to mine action. The narrative for this year’s report and meeting in Geneva was one of continued progress towards the goal of a mine-free world. Six countries declared themselves to be free of landmines; casualty figures are a fraction of what they were a decade ago; only one country used landmines and the amount of money committed to mine action was the highest ever recorded. The good news was tempered by the fact that several countries saw in increase in the number of landmine victims (and in fact the total number of victims increased for the second year in a row) and funding for victim assistance, already a pittance in terms of mine action funding, fell by 30% from the previous year. During the meeting, Poland announced its accession to the Treaty bringing the total number of States Parties to 161 while the United States continued its practice under the Obama Administration of participating in the meetings as a non-state party (IRIN News; The Landmine Monitor; Agence France Presse; Tuoitre News).
In individual countries, there was the usual mix of positive and negative progress, running the full gamut from Angola to Zimbabwe. Many stories were tied to the Meeting of States Parties while others showed that events in Geneva often have little bearing on what happens elsewhere. Ongoing conflicts in Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to create new landmine victims, while long-standing problems in places like Zimbabwe remain a threat.
Angola applied for and received a five-year extension to complete its demining obligations from the Meeting of States Parties. This extension will provide enough time for Angola to determine the extent of landmine contamination in the country and prepare and submit a comprehensive extension request to complete the demining activities. Angola’s representatives at the Meeting in Geneva declared that “anti-personnel landmines continue to be violators of the basic political, civil, cultural and socio-economic development of” Angola (All Africa; All Africa).
Back in Angola, the national institute of demining continued to provide mine risk education to peoples living in mine-affected regions of the country (All Africa), a task made more urgent by the discovery and identification of nine, not-previously-known, minefields in Bié Province by the HALO Trust (All Africa). In Huambo Province, 1.3 million square meters of land were cleared of landmines and in Malanje Province, two land reserves were cleared to make room for two planned cities (All Africa; All Africa). In both provinces clearance was undertaken to “ensure the free movement of people and goods” as part of larger development programs by the country.
On the last day of the Meeting of States Parties, December 7, “a country representative unexpectedly announced [Gambia’s] mine-free status to the gathering” (Agence France Presse). Gambia had been suspected of landmine contamination after several incidents over the years in which loggers moving between Gambia and the neighboring Senegalese region of Casamance had been injured by landmines. Gambia’s announcement at the meeting of States Parties refuted this suspicion, saying that all such injuries had occurred within Casamance and not in Gambia itself. The announcement however closely followed an incident in which three Gambians were killed and another injured on Sunday, December 2 by a landmine when they were traveling in Casamance whilst logging (All Africa). So the announcement of mine-free status while welcome, merely overshadowed much worse news for Gambia and landmines.
Also related to the Casamance region, 44 villages were declared mine-free thanks to funding provided by the Italian government. More than 100 villages, long-since abandoned, still need to be cleared of mines and a new contractor has taken over from Handicap International to continue the work (All Africa).
Zimbabwe also applied for and received an extension to complete its Treaty-mandated demining obligations at the Meeting of States Parties (Touitre News). Like Angola, Zimbabwe was requesting additional time to determine the scope of the problem and submit a follow-up request once the needs were identified; unlike Angola, this was Zimbabwe’s third such request and was required because Zimbabwe has made very little progress over the last dozen years towards achieving mine-free status. Zimbabwe, like much of southern Africa, is in the midst of a terrible drought and being more dependent on subsistence agriculture than its neighboring states, the people of Zimbabwe are engaging in more and more risky behavior. Reports suggest that Zimbabwean ranchers are grazing cattle in mine-infested regions along the border with Mozambique resulting in dozens of cows being killed as they trigger landmines (All Africa).
Al Shabaab, while in definite decline in Somalia, continues to use landmines and improvised explosive devices to attack Somali and African Union targets. A landmine exploded under a car carrying the Somali Ministers of Justice, Defense and Interior and the Chief of Police. After the blast, Al Shabaab fighter opened fire on the car and its security detail, resulting in several injuries to the security detail’s members (Global Post). In its retreat from central Somalia, Al Shabaab has also strengthened its presence in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. In separate attacks on Puntland soldiers near Sugurre town, Al Shabaab fighters killed two soldiers in a firefight and 10 soldiers with a landmine (All Africa).
In the same week as the attack on Somali ministers, Somalia participated in the Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty as a full member, being the 160th country to ratify or accede to the Treaty. Somalia’s participation offered an opportunity to highlight the work being done by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in the country. As the lead mine action operator in Somalia, UNMAS oversees demining and mine risk education while also funding “an emergency team of a dozen Somali medics who… provide emergency support [and] have treated 5,381 trauma victims, including more than 4,000 gunshot wounds, 50 UXO accident survivors, 965 shell injuries and 342 improvised explosive device (IED) victims since February 2010” (UNOPS).
Democratic Republic of Congo
The M23 rebels and fighting around Goma has received the lion’s share of headlines related to the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that is not the only active conflict in the eastern part of DRC. Near the border with South Sudan (in the Orientale Province rather than the Kivus where Goma is located), “unrelated” fighting has driven almost 20,000 refugees into South Sudan, 4,000 in December. The rebels involved are unnamed, but Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has been active in this region as well as several rebel groups fighting against the government of the Central African Republic. Unfortunately, safe locations for refugee camps are at a premium in this part of South Sudan as there are known minefields in the area. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees will transfer the DRC refugees to safer locations once they are identified (All Africa).
With the announcement that the Mozambican Province of Gaza has been completely cleared of landmines, only 23 districts remain to be cleared of landmines in advance of the March 2014 deadline for demining. Mabalane, the most heavily mined district in Gaza Province, was cleared by the Belgian NGO APOPO which uses specially trained rats to find mines; in Mabalane those rats found 3,000 such mines along the rail-line connecting Mozambique and Zimbabwe which were cleared in advance of the deadline for clearance set by Mozambique’s National Demining Institute (All Africa). Mozambique believes it will make the 2014 deadline and has offered to host the 2014 review conference of the Mine Ban Treaty as a demonstration of its belief. Considering the fact that Mozambique was once considered one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, this would be an impressive achievement and hosting of review conference would give Mozambique ample opportunity to show off and be an example for others (Touitre News).
Uganda declared itself to be mine-free having completed its demining tasks four months after the August 1, 2012 deadline for doing so had passed. Recognizing that clearing anti-personnel landmines is only part of the necessary exercise, Uganda is making plans for clearing other explosive remnants of war over the next three years. Now the next phase begins in earnest where the country looks to rehabilitate and reintegrate the survivors of landmines and to that end, the government of Uganda has pledged to compensate all landmine survivors and provide the necessary services for their recovery. To date, 2,000 individuals have been identified, but the announcement is likely to locate additional survivors. The State Minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, Musa Ecweru announced that Uganda is drafting a Victim Assistance Intervention law between the Office of the Prime Minister and the gender ministry. Already the country has been providing prosthetic limbs to victims of the Lords Resistance Army in the northern district of Lamwo and in the near future a psycho-social counseling program will be established with Handicap International (All Africa).
The Danish Demining Group (DDG) has been active in refugee camps in South Sudan to ensure their safety from landmines and other explosive remnants of war. In Unity State, DDG provided mine risk education to 800 individuals, cleared a minefield on the grounds of a Catholic church and declared a suspected minefield to be free of landmines (Reuters AlertNet). The refugee camps served by DDG are home to Sudanese and South Sudanese people fleeing the conflicts around the border between the two Sudans. The threat to civilians and refugees from the conflict is very real, with reports from Human Rights Watch about bombs being dropped on or near refugee camps by the Sudanese Air Force (HRW). For refugees crossing the border, active minefields lurk and at least four people were killed by a landmine in the contested “Mile 14 territory” in Northern Bahr El Ghazal State (All Africa).
While Sudan has been labeled as an aggressor by Human Rights Watch, Khartoum has also accused South Sudan of attacks. A spokesman for the Sudan Armed Forces denied the bombings described by HRW and said South Sudan’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) “is now planting landmines trying to stop the tribesmen and animals to go for drinking water at the river Bahr al Arab.” Of course the SPLA denied the accusation, but the fact remains that minefields are present in the area described, whoever placed them there (All Africa).
While not affected by landmines, South Africa has a long legacy as a producer and exporter of landmines and some December stories show how far the country has come from its past. Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, who was born with a defect that led to the amputation of both legs below the knee, has promised to “be involved in landmine victims relief work in Africa. I would like to work like this in the coming years” when he retires from competition (The Peninsula). Also, UNMAS singled out South Africa’s Mechem, a quasi-governmental organization that engages in landmine clearance, for praise for its work in and around Goma in DRC in the wake of the M23 rebellion. Mechem is contracted by the United Nations to provide mine action support to the mission in the Congo while also providing mine risk education to local communities. Mechem is the only African-headquartered organization accredited by the United Nations for mine clearance (Defence Web).
Sir Bobby Charlton’s Charity, Find a Better Way, and researchers at Furness College in Cumbria announced the development of a prototype device that “can identify landmines via their unique acoustic signature, making detection far easier and saving a lot of time.” The next step will be to create a probe that can be used either by hand or by remote-controlled robot for field testing (Northwest Evening Mail).
Lastly, let me be among those wishing the cast and crew of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” a most-welcome goodbye. Thanks to their antics every Twitter and Google search for the term “landmine” returns many useless hits of misogyny and sexism and ensured that many Americans no longer associate landmines with conflict but with clubbing. Please don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Michael P. Moore
January 4, 2013