Not everything that goes boom is a landmine

A year ago, the Control Arms Foundation of India, a member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), hosted a workshop for Indian journalists entitled, “Not Everything that Goes Boom is a Landmine.”  The workshop was intended to brief journalists about the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and inform journalists about how those treaties define anti-personnel landmines and asked the journalists to be careful when they attributed an explosion to a landmine (Kangla Online).  The general point to be made is that there are a *lot* of explosive remnants of war: anti-personnel landmines, anti-tank landmines, grenades, mortars, unexploded bombs, cluster munitions, rocket-propelled grenades, homemade or “improvised” explosive devices, etc., and only anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions are subject to global bans or regulation.  Also, the use of the term “landmine” is inflammatory, specifically because of the stigma against their use as a result of the Mine Ban Treaty so descriptions of their use can (and often are) used to sully the reputations of opponents.

I am reminded of this warning because of two recent items I have read.  The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) was declared free of anti-personnel landmines by Norwegian Peoples Aid last year, but in the 2013 Portfolio of Mine Action Projects, the organization Demeter Deminage has requested about US $360,000 to conduct demining activities in Kimongo (UNMAS).  In northern Uganda, the declaration of landmine-free status has been challenged by members of the local government who reported that Ugandan and Danish deminers are still active in Pader district.  The presence of those deminers was taken to mean that landmines were still extant in the region (Acholi Times).  In both declarations, Congo’s and Uganda’s, the context was very specific: the countries have been cleared of anti-personnel landmines as defined by the Mine Ban Treaty, but other explosive hazards, including anti-vehicle mines, are still present in the countries.  So the fact that demining activities continue is a positive sign that while one threat, anti-personnel landmines, has been eliminated, work continues to address others.

In addition to these two specific items, I have noticed that reporting on explosive devices in Somalia has changed.  I used to see frequent references to “landmines” and “remote-controlled landmines” but recently, any references to explosive items uses the term, “roadside bomb” or simply “explosive device.”  When the type of explosive is specified, invariably it is a grenade and the description of the attack, e.g., items are “thrown,” are consistent with grenades.  The reduction in the use of landmines could be the result of Al Shabaab’s loss of territory and shift in tactics (from ambushes to assassinations), but I think there is also a refinement in the descriptions being used by reporters in Somalia (who are some of the bravest people in the world, by the way).  The explosive devices used by Al Shabaab fall more broadly under the term “improvised explosive device” rather than “landmines” and since they are (mostly) remote-controlled, such devices do not meet the “victim-activated” qualification of anti-personnel landmines under the Mine Ban Treaty.  Are there anti-personnel landmines in Somalia?  Yes, many; but they are mostly the remnants of earlier conflicts and not a widely used weapon in the current one.

Michael P. Moore

January 11, 2013

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