“Few things as powerful as the fear of a landmine,” An Interview with Douglas M. Griffiths, US Ambassador to MozambiquePosted: April 4, 2014
In 1993 Douglas Griffiths was a Foreign Service Officer working on economic development issues in Mozambique. In his travels across the country Griffiths felt Mozambicans “palpable” fear of landmines. At the time Mozambique was just emerging from years of civil war and the international community was just beginning to address the landmine issue. Now, twenty years later, Griffiths has returned to Mozambique as the US Ambassador and in the following interview with Landmines in Africa, Ambassador Griffiths reflects on the “arc of progress in Mozambique” and the vital role landmine clearance has played in transforming the country.
Ambassador Griffiths: Thanks for your support on this important issue. This work [landmine clearance] has fundamentally transformed this country.
Landmines in Africa: I understand you were a Foreign Service Officer in Mozambique previously.
LinA: And when was that?
Griffiths: I was here in 1993.
LinA: So you were there right as the peace process was going on.
Griffiths: Right in the midst of the peace process and I was the Economic-Commercial Officer so I did a lot of work on economic development issues. I was out in the field fairly often and I saw just how landmines constrained the normal activity of Mozambicans. And so coming back and seeing the amazing work of Mozambique and the international community in eliminating landmines in Mozambique and two weeks ago I participated in the event on declaring Maputo province mine-free. It was very rewarding to come full circle. Because when I was here, we were just talking about how we were going to engage and partner to confront the threat of landmines. And now, 20 years later I’m participating in the culmination of all that great work.
LinA: In 1999 Maputo hosted the First Meeting of the States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and then-Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano estimated that it would take 160 years to clear all of the mines in Mozambique. How much does it mean to you and to the United States to be able to cut that to a tenth of that time?
Griffiths: I think this is a remarkable testimony to the power of international cooperation and coordination. Because it’s the work of the government of Mozambique, a lot of donors, a lot of non-governmental organizations and extraordinarily courageous deminers who have dedicated their lives to this. It’s given Mozambicans access to their farms and their markets in a way that they never did. They’re not fearful of their children playing in the yard. And that fear, I think there are few things as powerful as the fear of a landmine. It was palpable when I was in Mozambique last time and now you see people at ease in their fields and letting their kids go to school and poor workers having to check transmission lines and things like that.
LinA: And how does that cooperation reflect US priorities for Mozambique?
Griffiths: Our top priorities here are creating a more prosperous, democratic Mozambique. We are investing about US $500 million a year in the Mozambican people. A significant amount of that money goes to health. Because we believe that a healthy population is key to a prosperous, inclusive Mozambique where people can participate fully in economic life. Obviously landmine clearing is a key ingredient of that, ensuring people aren’t losing their lives and limbs to landmines and that they are able to take full control of all the resources the country has to offer.
LinA: In the hope that Mozambique will be able to declare itself mine-free late this year, or maybe early next year, how will the US continue to support other parts of mine action, specifically survivor assistance and the establishment of an ongoing explosive ordnance disposal unit for all of the other unexploded remnants of war?
Griffiths: We’ve invested US $50 million in Mozambique for demining, including $3 million this year. And we do hope that we will be able to declare Mozambique mine-free. Our support to all of Mozambique’s socio-economic development includes victims of landmines, especially our very substantial support to the Mozambican health sector. We will continue, I think you are familiar with the success in strengthening the capacity of Mozambicans to further the work. Through AFRICOM, the US Africa Command’s humanitarian mine action program, we trained a cadre of Mozambican police, civilian deminers capable of clearing any new landmines or unexploded ordnance they discover. It’s one of our top priorities because it’s the sustainability that is the key of all of our engagement in Mozambique.
We used to work directly with the military here, with the same program. Their military engineers are now self-sufficient in training new technicians. That is exactly what we hoped to do and so now we are supporting more the civilian side, the Institute for Demining. I think our work the FADM, the armed forces, shows that self-sufficiency in training works and it builds the capacity that demining will continue. That transition from our active demining to the Mozambicans taking responsibility is a very positive evolution.
LinA: Speaking of the National Institute of Demining, the head of the INAD earlier this week called for a ceasefire between RENAMO and the government of Mozambique saying that if a ceasefire weren’t in place by May 1st, he feared that Mozambique would not be able to meet its deadline of clearing all of the landmines by the end of this year. How is the Embassy supporting any initiatives to try and achieve a ceasefire? What active steps are you taking?
Griffiths: We’ve been actively involved in calling for political solutions to end conflicts, it’s the only way forward. Given the Mozambican history, Mozambicans know the legacy of war and are very much in favor of negotiated political solutions to political issues. We’ve been actively working with the government, with RENAMO, with civil society to promote dialogue and resolution of the differences.
LinA: In 2007 a large ammunition depot detonated in Maputo with hundreds of casualties. One of the steps that the Embassy supported was to try and secure other ammunition depots. Is that work still ongoing?
Griffiths: First off, our thoughts are still with the victims and the families of that tragedy. It was a very sad event. We work in many countries around the world with these stockpiles of aged, excess, and at-risk munitions and improve the partner nations’ ability to safely manage their stockpiles. We’ve offered stockpile management assistance to Mozambique and encouraged the government to accept these offers.
LinA: In June, Mozambique will host the Third Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty. Part of the significance of that event is being able to show the distinct difference between what countries and parties saw in 1999 and what they are going to see today. I’ve spoken with representatives from the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement here in DC and they’ve confirmed they will be attending that meeting. What role do you see the Embassy having in that Conference?
Griffiths: I think it’s a beautiful story of 20 years of the arc of progress in Mozambique and I think it is a significant, symbolic decision to host the next Conference here. And as you pointed out, there should be an observer delegation from Washington in Maputo and we’ll obviously support them and be present as necessary at the meeting.
LinA: In 1999, while President Clinton did not attend [the First Meeting of States Parties], he sent a letter that was read by President Chissano at the opening ceremony. Have you had any indication that President Obama or perhaps Secretary Kerry would be issuing a similar statement for the Conference?
Griffiths: I’m not at all privy to the preparations for the Conference. I think you should direct that one to colleagues at PM [Bureau of Political-Military Affairs].
LinA: In terms of seeing the end of landmines in Mozambique, we’ve made significant investments in groups like the HALO Trust and I understand that they are also working in Zimbabwe and do you have any knowledge of the work that is going on there?
Griffiths: I don’t. Again, probably PM would be a good resource for that. You are right in terms of the expertise that has been developed and I’ve met, in my visits to various demining areas, Mozambican deminers who have gone on to work in other countries and it provides life skills and discipline to these folks that we hope will help them find further employment. The end of active demining here isn’t a static process. Those skills that have been developed will continue to enrich Mozambican society.
We’ll need to continue to work on this issue here and in other countries that remain heavily affected.
LinA: Thank you so much for your time.
Ambassador Griffiths was interviewed via phone by Michael P. Moore on April 3, 2014.