New Mines and Old Mines: Issue # 1 for the 3rd Review Conference

In exactly seven weeks governments, civil society and landmine survivors will gather in Maputo, Mozambique for the Third Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty.  During the Conference, the attendees will review progress in landmine action since the last review conference in 2009 in Cartagena, Colombia and lay out the plan for the next five years.  In the first of four weekly posts, I discuss some of the issues I would like to see addressed in Maputo and beyond.


Landmines kill and maim whether they are decades old or only days old.  While I would expect a lot of attention to be paid to reports of new landmine use in Ukraine, Mali and Tunisia during the Third Review Conference, the States Parties must not lose sight of the obligation to clear known and existing minefields. The States Parties should also address the alarming number of countries who have been unable to clear their minefields in what was believed to be a reasonable period of time.

Credible reports of new landmine usage have come out of Africa in the last year, including Mali, Tunisia, Sudan and Somalia, as well as around the world in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Myanmar and Colombia.  Many of these mines are likely “artisanal” or home-made landmines.  Reports of mass manufactured landmines, both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle, have come from Syria and Ukraine (by Russia or paramilitary units allied with Russia) in the last few months and from Sudan, Libya and Yemen in recent years. Casualties from and reports of these new mines generate headlines and attention, but the vast majority of landmine casualties and economic damage from landmine contamination comes from old mines and minefields.  New landmine usage presents a challenge to the Mine Ban Treaty and reinforces the need for universalization of the Treaty, but the old mines are a very real threat to hundreds of thousands of people.

At the Third Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty, the States Parties will review and decide upon Article 5 extension requests from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.  Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty requires all States Parties to clear all known landmines within ten years of the Treaty’s entry into force for that country.  The process for requesting and receiving extensions was established at the Second Review Conference and so these requests are nothing new. In fact, the DRC, Eritrea and Zimbabwe have all requested and received extensions previously; Ethiopia’s request is its first.

The clearance of landmines is one of the most important parts of mine action.  Along with the destruction of stockpiled mines, only the clearance of every mine in every minefield will guarantee no future landmine casualties.  When the Treaty was negotiated, the ten-year deadline to clear all known minefields was recognized as ambitious for those countries with the greatest contamination, e.g., Afghanistan, Angola and Colombia, but well within reach of those with less.  Whether or not the negotiators believed DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe could clear their mines within ten years is not known, but these countries have not helped themselves.  Eritrea and Zimbabwe have become isolated from the international community, Eritrea by choice when it expelled the international mine action operators, Zimbabwe by sanction when the government allowed and encouraged the seizures of farms by “war veterans.”  Ethiopia closed its civilian mine action authority, shifted all operations to the military (and appropriated the mine action authority’s vehicles for high-ranking soldiers in the process) reducing capacity in the country.  DRC’s issues are not necessarily of its own making as the civil wars and extended instability in the DRC have hampered landmine clearance efforts there.

However, in recent months, Zimbabwe and the DRC have both made improved efforts to complete their landmine clearance tasks.  Zimbabwe has been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the international demining organizations, Norwegian Peoples Aid and the HALO Trust, to increase the national capacity for demining.  The DRC, with support from the government of Japan, has conducted an assessment of all known minefields to determine, with greater accuracy, the actual scale of contamination in the country.  These efforts are reflective of Zimbabwe’s and the DRC’s recognition of their responsibilities under the Mine Ban Treaty.

Eritrea and Ethiopia (somewhat fitting that I would be able to link these two) both requested additional time to complete their tasks because they failed to prioritize demining in recent years.  Eritrea’s demining teams “participate in other outstanding development programs such as constructions, agricultural works and others” (AP Mine Ban Convention) and the country requests an additional five years, through 2020, just to complete the survey work, after which Eritrea will likely submit yet another extension request.  Ethiopia’s request notes that most of the remaining minefields are along the border with Somalia, in the Ogaden region, and were laid during the wars between Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970s.  These areas are off-limits to civilians because of continuing unrest among Somali Ethiopians in the Ogaden so only the Ethiopian army is able to access it.  However, area is so unstable that the base camp for the army’s demining teams will be in Addis Ababa, some 500 miles or more away from the Somali border.  (It is worth pointing out that Ethiopian soldiers were recently stationed in the Somalian town of Beledweyne, less than 20 miles from the Ethiopia – Somalia border, as part of a peacekeeping force.)  With both countries, it’s not the scale of contamination that has required them to seek extensions, it’s the fact that neither government has put the appropriate emphasis on the task, just as Zimbabwe did not for many years until the ICRC and others offered to help out.

The problem of old mines is simple: if a country like Zimbabwe can request multiple extensions to its landmine clearance deadline, the most recent of which includes a promise that a future request will be submitted once the scale of landmine contamination is clear, does the landmine clearance obligation actually constitute a time-bound obligation?  With four extensions already granted and a fifth pending, what motivation does Zimbabwe or any other State Party to meet the existing deadline?  If Eritrea can refuse all international support for an extension request that they estimate will cost US $7.2 million, but then only allocate US $250,000 per year, then where is the political commitment to the process?  The extension process needs to be adjusted so that extensions cannot be granted in perpetuity and that they are realistic.  The HALO Trust has suggested that by 2023, landmines could be cleared from the most landmine-contaminated countries with a “slight” increase in current investments for demining.  That would include Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola and if those countries can be cleared, then there is no reason why countries with fewer landmines, i.e., every other State Party, could not also be landmine-free by then.  So, let 2023 become the new standard.  At the Third Review Conference the States Parties can pledge that all landmines will be cleared from all member states by the Fifth Review Conference (which would, in fact, be held in 2024 giving all parties an extra year).

The problem of new mines is more complex because new landmine usage appears to be associated with new and ongoing conflicts.  Demining in conflict zones is difficult, but not impossible as Afghanistan proves (with the caveat that deminers deserve better protection than they have received at times).  Reports of new mine use allow humanitarian and post-conflict actors to respond rapidly to their presence once conflict subsides.  The attention reports of new mines receive can be used as an education opportunity about the continuing presence of landmines in countries that have been at peace for years.  Reports of new mine use also should be monitored as sometimes what are reported as new landmines may be old mines or not even mines at all.  Any new use of landmines challenges the effectiveness of the Mine Ban Treaty’s stigmatization of use and should be responded to swiftly.  Many, but certainly not all, countries do not want to be associated with indiscriminate and inhumane weapons and the “naming and shaming” of landmine users is often the most effective tool in the advocate’s arsenal.

Michael P. Moore

May 5, 2014


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