Arab Spring and the need to ban landmines

The use of landmines by armed groups since the start of the Arab Spring is alarming.  In 2010, only one government in the world, Myanmar, used landmines and armed groups in six countries used mines, only one of which, Yemen, was affected by the Arab Spring (The Monitor).  Over the course of the last three years, we have seen the governments of Yemen, Syria and Libya use anti-personnel landmines against their own citizenry (Yemen is a party to the Mine Ban Treaty, Syria and Libya are not) and Israel placed new mines along its border with Syria (Israel is also not a party to the Mine Ban Treaty).  Armed groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Somalia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria have all been accused (with varying levels of evidence) of using landmines as well.

Armies and soldiers, whether the formal armed forces of a recognized government or the members of militias and rebel groups aligned against a government, use the weapons at hand to fight.  Clausewitzian notions aside, once an armed group engages in a fight, it will use the tactics and tools available to conduct that fight until it defeats its opponent or is defeated.  Despite the norms of international humanitarian law, many armed groups will use whatever tactics they think will help them win, e.g., child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, human shields and indiscriminate weapons, or to finance their wars, including conflict minerals, kidnapping for ransom and drug smuggling.  We may believe that we live in a world of decency and humanity, but all too often: once the shooting starts, the rulebook becomes irrelevant.

National armies and rebel groups used landmines because they were available to them.  The failure of states to join the Mine Ban Treaty (Israel, Libya and Syria) and the failure of States Parties to completely destroy their stockpiles (Yemen) meant that the armies of those countries could still use landmines.  Had these countries joined the Treaty and destroyed their stockpiles, the over 500 landmine casualties reported in Yemen and Libya in the last couple of years would have been prevented.  In Syria the number of casualties from new mine usage is unknown but more than 50; no casualties from new mine usage have been reported in Israel.

Among rebel groups, the use of landmines has spread across the Sahel and the Middle East.  Adopting asymmetrical warfare tactics, rebels are using mines, both factory made and homemade, to terrorize local populations, close roads to military and humanitarian traffic, and defend hideouts.  Many of the factory-made mines were looted from Libyan stockpiles in 2011, which, if Libya had joined the Mine Ban Treaty and destroyed its stockpiles, would not have existed.  As for the homemade mines, those might have escaped regulation by the Mine Ban Treaty but their indiscriminate use, especially the victim-activated booby traps, constitute war crimes.  And thanks to the efforts of Geneva Call and its Deed of Commitment, non-state actors can agree not to use anti-personnel landmines (or booby traps that operate like mines).

In August, circumstances in two countries showed that conflicts need not be accompanied by landmines. Oman became the latest country to ban landmines by acceding to the Mine Ban Treaty and two rebel groups from the Darfur region of Sudan signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment.  Oman did not escape the turmoil of Arab Spring, but through a combination of social spending and government reforms (and the violence that accompanied Arab Spring and its responses elsewhere), the protests and responses did not become violent (The National).  By banning landmines, Oman ensures that any potential conflict in the future will not be marked by the use of these indiscriminate weapons.  The conflict in Darfur has lasted more than a decade and both of the rebel groups that signed the Deed of Commitment have been involved in the fight since the beginning. However, despite the years of conflict, Darfur has largely avoided the scourge of landmines thanks to the fact that Sudan has signed the Mine Ban Treaty and now all of the rebel groups active there have signed the Deed of Commitment (Geneva Call).  The fight continues and may do so for some time, but it will continue without landmines.

Michael P. Moore

September 9, 2014

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


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