J’Accuse! Maintaining the Stigma against Landmine Use, Issue # 2 for the Review ConferencePosted: May 12, 2014
In exactly six 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 second of four weekly posts, I discuss some of the issues I would like to see addressed in Maputo and beyond.
Opposing sides to a conflict will hurl all kinds of accusations at each other. In the last few months, I have seen three instances where parties to a conflict have accused their opponents of using landmines in order to gain some kind of leverage or advantage. The highest profile example has been in Ukraine where Russian forces (or at least Ukrainian forces allied with Russia) have placed landmines along the newly established border between the Crimea and Ukraine. A second example occurred in South Sudan where a United Nations convoy was seized by the government of South Sudan. The convoy was found to be carrying weapons for a Ghanaian peacekeeping force. The third example was in Mozambique where, in the midst of negotiations between RENAMO and the government of Mozambique, the spokesperson for the head of RENAMO accused the Mozambican army of laying landmines in the Gorongosa mountain range. In each example, the veracity of the charges mattered less than the vitriol and energy created by the accusations.
The enduring legacy of the Mine Ban Treaty has been the stigma against the use of landmines. Since the passage of the Treaty, fewer and fewer countries have made, exported or used anti-personnel landmines. Now, only a handful of pariah states continue their use. The stigma has been effective, but to remain effective, new use and new allegations of use of mines must be responded to in short order. Also, the limits of the stigma need to be recognized; not everyone cares about their international reputations as we shall see.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has been monitoring the Crimea situation very closely and recently published this update on allegations of Russian use of landmines (ICBL). In addition, the New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers has spotted and photographed some hastily posted warning signs of landmines in Ukraine (Instagram). The ICBL has confirmed that the mines used by Russia (or its allied Ukrainian separatists) are anti-vehicle landmines and not anti-personnel mines. The distinction is important because the Mine Ban Treaty only bans anti-personnel mines, not anti-vehicle mines so if Russia is using anti-vehicle mines on Ukrainian soil, Russia is not violating the Mine Ban Treaty (although it is probably violating other international laws…). Also, Russia has not signed or acceded the Mine Ban Treaty so it cannot be in violation of the Mine Ban Treaty. Russia has ratified Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which requires all minefields to be marked and according to Ukrainian authorities, the Russian minefields are marked.
In Mozambique, the opposition party RENAMO, angered by perceived electoral biases against it, is trying to negotiate concessions from the government before the next parliamentary and presidential elections. RENAMO is conducting these negotiations from the literal barrel of a gun after the party’s leadership announced a return to the “bush” and several attacks on government installations and civilian convoys through Sofala province. RENAMO (the National Resistance Movement) fought the government of Mozambique in a bloody civil war in the 1970s and 1980s during which RENAMO was supported by the government of Rhodesia and the Apartheid government of South Africa. RENAMO has been led by Afonso Dhlakama since 1979 and Dhlakama has run for Mozambique’s presidency four times and lost every time, to Joaquim Chissano in 1994 and 1999 and to Armando Guebeza in 2004 and 2009. Dhlakama is widely expected to run (and lose) a fifth time in 2014 and his threats of returning to war may be in anticipation of that loss.
The government of Mozambique has offered concessions to Dhlakama and RENAMO, despite the attacks on civilians and government posts, but RENAMO has refused to demilitarize. In addition to changes to the electoral laws, RENAMO has demanded several senior positions in a reconstituted Mozambican army, including the head of the armed forces. In order to put international pressure on Mozambican government, in addition to the internal pressure from violence, RENAMO has accused the government of using “weapons of mass destruction” (All Africa) and landmines (Portuguese Independent News) in an attempt to kill Dhlakama and other RENAMO leaders.
The accusation of landmines is especially poignant in Mozambique as in recent weeks the province of Maputo was declared landmine-free and Mozambique is (or at least was) on track to be completely landmine-free later this year. With the Third Review Conference being held in Maputo in June, any mention of landmines in Mozambique would have deep resonance among the population, but RENAMO’s accusations are a cheap stunt. Are there landmines in Sofala province and the Gorongosa mountains where Dhlakama is hiding? Yes, almost certainly, but those minefields are decades-old remnants of the civil war and when civilian deminers tried to clear the landmines, the deminers were shot at by RENAMO members. Since the shooting, in which two deminers were injured, all landmine clearance in Sofala province has been halted and the head of the National Demining Institute has said that if a ceasefire could not be secured by May 1 (it wasn’t), then Mozambique would be likely to miss its deadline of clearing all landmines in 2014.
On March 7th, soldiers from South Sudan’s army seized a United Nations convoy. The convoy was carrying weapons for the Ghanaian peacekeeping force in South Sudan in direct violation of UN policy (peacekeepers’ weapons are to be shipped by air, not ground). The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) did not deny the mistake and the head of the peacekeeping unit accepted responsibility. Included in the shipment were gas masks and gas mask canisters in case the peacekeepers had to resort to the use of tear gas for crowd control (which Indian peacekeepers in Bor did when their compound was attacked). The canisters resemble landmines to the untrained eye and immediately within South Sudan and amongst the Dinka diaspora, accusations flew against UNMISS and the United Nations. On the state television channel, images of the canisters were played again and again with the reporters falsely referring to the canisters as landmines. The government of South Sudan accused the UN of providing landmines to the rebels and several violent demonstrations against UNMISS erupted in Juba and around the country.
South Sudan is home to one of the United Nations largest demining programs and the UN has invested millions of dollars trying to clear landmines from the country. Thousands of South Sudanese have been killed or maimed by landmines in the decades of was with Sudan which gave the accusation of new landmine use such resonance in the country. UNMISS repeatedly denied the charges, but they stuck. On social media, in traditional media and in the street, South Sudanese loyal to the government believed that the UN was willing to use banned weapons (other accusations against the UN included use of chemical weapons) against the government and in support of the rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar. The damage to the UN’s reputation in South Sudan is substantial and despite efforts to rebuild trust, the government of South Sudan has found the UN to be a useful bogeyman in rallying support so the government has encouraged the accusations. This, despite the fact that the United Nations will likely be called upon by the government to feed millions of South Sudanese this summer.
So where does that leave us? Sure, Russia is destabilizing Ukraine, but if Russia is willing to risk international sanctions for annexing the Crimea, why would it worry about accusations of landmine use? It doesn’t, but the stigma still is important because it bonds together the activist community. This is not the first time that Russia has been accused of using landmines. The Russian army has extensively used landmines in its fight against Chechen separatists as well as using cluster munitions in the 2008 conflict against Georgia. Russia has consistently brushed off these accusations and while Russia has acknowledged the humanitarian impact of landmines, it has also consistently asserted their military utility and retains the right to use anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines (The Monitor). Therefore, while the stigma against landmine use has failed to sway Russian activity, the stigma keeps Russia and Russian separatists in Ukraine isolated and unites the opposition. As long as Russia and its allies are willing to use landmines, they will find international support limited.
In Mozambique and South Sudan, the false accusations of landmine use had very different responses. In Mozambique, the accusation went relatively unnoticed and because of the source and context, was not considered credible. In South Sudan, the accusations led to violent protests in Juba and Melbourne, Australia and accusations by the government of South Sudan that the United Nations was trying to arm the rebels. The vitriol and vehemence of the accusations forced UNMISS’s spokesperson to make several statements and press releases, but the initial anger stayed and the United Nations reputation as a neutral party to the conflict in South Sudan was greatly damaged. In the weeks following the landmine accusations, UN bases in South Sudan came under fire by both government and rebel forces and hundreds of civilians who had sought protection at these bases were killed.
The efforts of the ICBL to document the accusations of landmine use in Ukraine by Russian forces are laudable, but equally important for the sake of maintaining the stigma against landmine use is to call out false accusations. In Mozambique the false accusations of landmine had little impact, but RENAMO’s obstruction to landmine clearance deserves a strong rebuke. In South Sudan the false accusations of landmine use by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan has had a disastrous impact on the UN’s reputation and hard-earned trust. Just check out the comments on the UNMISS Facebook page to see the contempt some have for the UN. When the government of South Sudan made the accusations against the UN, only Norway stood up on behalf of the Mission whose leader is herself a Norwegian citizen (Sudan Tribune).
Repeated false accusations of landmine use will have the effect of the boy who cried wolf unless they are responded to and debunked quickly and authoritatively. All allegations of landmine use should be investigated and actual use documented and false accusations called out. Those who make false accusations, like RENAMO and the Government of South Sudan, should be subject to the same naming and shaming as those who use landmines, like Russia. Falsely accusing an opponent of using landmines to gain leverage in a conflict is reprehensible libelous and RENAMO and the Government of South Sudan need to held to account for their false statements and the false statements of their supporters.
Michael P. Moore
May 12, 2014