The Month in Mines, March 2013

March was very good to the HALO Trust and Japan has been very good to the mine action community.  Globally, civil society used the month to raise awareness and ramp up interest in the landmine issue as April 4th, the International Day for Landmine Awareness approached.  Mali continued to dominate the headlines, but landmine injuries were also reported in Somalia, as Egypt progressed towards a mine-free state.

Mali

The conflict in Mali continued as French and Malian forces, supported by contingents from Chad and Niger, sought to clear the remaining Islamists from Northern Mali.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) were very active in releasing reports about the dangers from landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW), pointing out the presence of new and old landmines and munitions.  All three agencies reported on their efforts to provide emergency relief (UNHCR), mine risk education (UNICEF) and training for Mali deminers (UNMAS) (All Africa; Voice of America; All Africa).  A touching story came from the Provincial council of Maine-et-Loire in Western France which voted to give a grant of 5,000 euros to a French demining organization to provide mine awareness comics to children in Mali (Angers Info ).  This grant is very important because almost 50 children have been killed or injured by landmines and ERW since the coup in Mali in March 2012 and even schoolyards have been contaminated by munitions in the fighting and UNCIEF estimates more than 200,000 children are at risk, but only 27,000 have received mine risk education (Voice of America; All Africa .

In what has turned out to be a sadly prescient statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned Mali and the international community about the safety situation in Mali.  “Terrorist groups and tactics, the proliferation of weapons, improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordnance and landmines are expected to pose significant threats” in Mali, Ban warned in his report which also called for more than 11,000 peacekeepers in addition to a sizable force tasked with actually combatting the remaining Islamists (All Africa).  On March 30, three days after Moon’s report, two Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a landmine near Gao and on the 31st, a suicide bomber attacked Timbuktu killing himself and wounding another Malian soldier (Al Jazeera; France24).

Uganda

In Northern Uganda’s Gulu district, 21 landmines have been reported still in the ground despite the November 2012 declaration that the country was mine-free.  These reports are unverified, but if true, the landmines would have been placed during the 1990s and 2000s by the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF).  The UPDF would also be responsible for clearing any found mines and local community members have marked the locations of the suspected mines (Sunrise News).

I bring this story up not just because of the incredible danger that landmines pose in places that have been declared mine-free, but also to highlight a very brave story from the other side of the world.  On the Thailand – Cambodia border, near where soldiers from the countries fought just two years ago, a Thai ranger on patrol stepped on a landmine and suffered catastrophic injuries.  11 other landmines were found in the vicinity. The Bangkok Post conducted an investigation and while they found the landmine were anti-tank mines and not anti-personnel mine, the mines were equipped with anti-handling fuses making them victim-activated booby traps and thus banned by the Mine Ban Treaty.  In an editorial, the Bangkok Post calls for a full investigation by outsiders, not the Thai or Cambodian militaries and says simply, “Ranger Niran has been crippled for life in an incident that should not have happened and must not happen again” (Bangkok Post).  My hope would be that if landmines are present in Uganda, the Ugandan press will be as forceful and direct as their Thai counterparts.

Somalia

The Japanese government provided US $4 million in March to the Voluntary Trust Fund for Assistance in Mine Action in Somalia.  Japan’s support since 2010 has enabled UNMAS to provide mine risk education to 60,000 Somalis and destroy 7,000 pieces of ERW and the announced support will continue that work and allow displaced persons to return to their homes (Sabahi).

In the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, the HALO Trust has been working on mine clearance since 1999 and supports a demining team of 600 people. As part of a plan to expand that work, the Trust’s Director General, Guy Willoughby visited Somaliland and met with the region’s Vice President (and acting President).  On behalf of his country, the Vice President thanked Willoughby and the Trust but also said that Somaliland still needs the Trust’s services to clear minefields and reduce the danger to people and livestock (Somaliland Press).

The good news from Somalia does not continue.  In Kismayo, a young girl was injured when a command-activated landmine was detonated, targeting a government vehicle (AMISOM Media Monitoring, no link).  A couple days later, two landmines were discovered on the grounds of the city’s hospital as the local government prepared to re-open the hospital for medical services (AMISOM Media Monitoring, no link).  Near Mandera Town on the Kenya – Somalia border, a victim-activated improvised explosive device (essentially a home-made landmine), detonated and killed one Kenyan police officer while wounding two others (The Standard).  And in Galgadud region, a landmine exploded on the grounds of a Koranic school.  Two children were killed in the blast and three others were injured.  The report did not indicate if the mine had been found on the school grounds or if one of the children had brought it to the school (All Africa).

In the last story from Somalia, landmines revealed some of the continuing divisions and political in-fighting in Kismayo.  Kismayo is in the proposed region of Jubbaland and would likely serve as Jubbaland’s capitol should a semi-autonomous region (like Somaliland) be established.  Some members of the Kenyan government are pushing for the establishment of Jubbaland to create a buffer region between Kenya and Somalia while actors in Somalia are resisting attempts to carve up the country.  In March, the chief of security for Kismayo was arrested by local militia members.  The security chief claimed he was arrested because “he detonated and removed a land mine that was meant to harm the [Somali] prime minister” and the landmine had been placed by “members of the interim administration” (Mareeg).

Libya

Handicap International and the Libyan Ministry of Education launched a training of trainers program for Libyan teachers to spread the word about the threat of landmines and other ERW.  In total, 250 teachers will become trainers, but the program is already demonstrating success.  So far, 36 trainers have been able to train 121 teachers.  In addition to the training of trainers program, a teacher training kit will soon be released to provide teachers with additional materials to use when giving mine risk education (Libyan Herald).

Angola

The European Union has committed 20 million euros to demining in Angola in 2013.  The funding will allow the HALO Trust to clear minefields that have not been prioritized by the Angolan government and are being cleared by the national demining agencies like INAD and CNIDAH (Angola Press Agency).  CNIDAH, the government commission with oversight of mine action in Angola, continues to provide capacity building sessions to provincial mine action agencies and hosted a four-day training in Huambo province to “improve the staff’s knowledge of the types of the landmines and unexploded ordnances, types of demining operations, landmine risk education and assistance to victims.”  The training is intended to improve provincial coordination and strengthen the mine action focal points within local agencies (All Africa).

The result of the all of the landmine clearance in Angola has been an increase in the amount of land available for agriculture.  Currently 40% of Angola is under active cultivation and another 43% of the country is forested (Macau Hub).

After forty years of war, Angola had two million landmines that contributed to the deaths of one million Angolans and the maiming of 200,000 more.  In an address to the Pan-African Forum, Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos declared peace to be “one of the most precious assets for the African continent” and certainly Dos Santos should know about precious assets as he governs and controls Angola’s tremendous mineral wealth.  As the father of Africa’s first female billionaire and Angola’s for the last 33 years, Dos Santos identified, without any apparent irony, “democracy as the only path that enables peoples to be the masters of their destinies and periodically choose their leaders in an environment of respect for others’ ideas and people’s will.”  And since he was giving the speech in Luanda, one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in due to the tremendous oil wealth concentrated there, at the expense of the rest of the country, Dos Santos also said “we must care about the material, moral and spiritual satisfaction of individuals, families and people” (All Africa).  Ahem.

Zimbabwe

The embassy of Japan in Zimbabwe announced a nearly US $900,000 grant to the HALO Trust for landmine clearance along the border with Mozambique.  These mines were placed by the Rhodesian government in the 1970s to prevent Zimbabwean liberation fighters from moving across the border from their camps and supply lines in Mozambique.  Since the end of the war in 1980, an estimated 1,500 people have been killed by landmines along the border, including 25 in 2012.  The Japanese Ambassador, Yonezo Fukuda, hoped “the area should completely be rid of land mines to allow local people, particularly children, to move freely without any fear” and that “Japan looks forward to a future where the production of indiscriminate munitions such as landmines and cluster bombs will be forever banned.”  The HALO Trust’s project manager in Zimbabwe, Tom Dibb, called on the government of Zimbabwe to prioritize landmine clearance and said this project was a demonstration of the benefits of demining.  Dibb said that in addition to directly employing 90 Zimbabweans, another 20,000 will have access to cultivable land and be able to move freely without fear of landmines (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Company; Bernama).

Egypt

26,000 acres of land, some 20% of the Egyptian Sahara Desert in the western region of the country has been cleared of landmines that back to the World War II battles of El Alamein.  A military spokesperson said “The landmines were hindering development projects planned for the area; they also led to the death of many Bedouins and shepherds” and with the cleared land, a planned city of 1 million people will be established (Daily News Egypt).

Eritrea

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRC-E), a United Kingdom based organization working on behalf of the human rights of Eritreans in Eritrea and around the world, reported that 76 Eritrean refugees in Sirte, Libya were being forced to clear landmines.  The refugees have received no training and are not supervised in their tasks.  HRC-E believes that “Libyans do not want to do it themselves, so they use refugees” and that the refugees are denied access to UNHCR representatives (Human Rights Concern – Eritrea).  This report is unconfirmed, but there is some historical background to suggest that this is not out of the ordinary and will be covered in a future blog post.

International

March 2013 saw the start of the annual awareness campaign by landmine activists that spans the six weeks from March 1st to April 4th, the International Day for Landmine Awareness.  In the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, authors reminded the health community of its “major role to play in matters pertaining to landmines” and the need to “address the social determinants of health” including landmines.  The global health community was among the early leaders and champions of the ban landmines movement and its continued engagement is needed (WHO).

In Addis Ababa, experts from the African Union and member states met to “share experiences and tackle obstacles to freeing the continent of this scourge [landmines].” The need to share expertise and information is acute in Africa since several African states have had to request extensions to complete their mine clearance obligation under the Mine Ban Treaty so the meeting had the intention to “find ways to clear affected land faster and more effectively” (All Africa).

Jody Williams, the Nobel Laureate who served as the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, release her memoir, “My Name is Jody Williams,” describing her life activism which has continued since her departure from the ICBL (Boston Globe; book available from Amazon).

In addition to the previously mentioned contributions, Japan gave US $18 million to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Assistance in Mine Action to support mine action in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan.  The funds will “help the United Nations survey and secure huge swaths of territory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to provide risk education to people exposed to explosive hazards. In Libya and Somalia, it will provide support for operations and training for explosive ordnance disposal and clearance. In South Sudan it will allow on-going work, surveying and securing at risk areas, to continue and will expedite clearance of the most contaminated areas.”  The contribution confirms and continues Japan’s status as the largest contributor to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Mine Action (UNMAS, pdf).

Prince Harry, the third in line (for another four months) to the throne in the Great Britain made two major landmine related announcements in March.  First, he agreed to serve as the patron of the HALO Trust’s 25th anniversary appeal.  His mother, Princess Diana, supported the HALO Trust in Angola shortly before her death in 1997 and Harry’s patronage provides a direct link to that work.  Prince Harry had already been supportive of the Trust and visited Trust projects in Mozambique.  As part of his patronage work, Harry’s second announcement was a trip to the United States to promote the HALO Trust at a Washington, DC exhibition, in addition to promoting his other charitable interests (The Express).

Just as I was writing this, I saw the news that the Arms Trade Treaty has passed in the United Nations General Assembly by a vote of 154 countries for, 3 against and 23 abstentions.  Congratulations to the campaigners who worked so hard for this moment and shame on the 26 states that did not vote yes.

Michael P. Moore

April 3, 2013

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