When language gets in the way of good news: Is Zambia “landmine-free”?

In recent months, we’ve discussed Zambia and noted that there appears to be confusion over whether or not there are any landmines in Zambia.  Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Bob Mtonga, a Zambian physician and disarmament advocate, and he explained to me the situation which is this: to the best of anyone’s knowledge, all known landmines have been cleared from Zambia.  However, because landmine use in Zambia was “nuisance” mining without any specific pattern, there remains the possibility that previously unknown and undocumented landmines could be found in Zambia.  This possibility prevents the Zambian government from making any statements, definitive or otherwise, about whether or not Zambia is landmine-free.  Which is understandable.  If Zambian officials declared the country landmine-free and someone where to discover or be injured by a mine, then the credibility of the government and the landmine clearance process could be called into question.

However, the government’s equivocation on the subject and silence when asked directly leads to fears that the country still has a landmine problem.  Already, in response to the uncertainty, the British government has revised its travel advice for Zambia which could impact tourism in the country.  So, what can a country do in this situation?  And, can a country ever announce that it is truly landmine-free?

To be clear, there is no reason to believe that there are any landmines in Zambia.  There have been no confirmed reports of landmine incidents for five years and the government maintains an explosive ordnance disposal unit to respond to any potential issues.  But what Zambia’s situation shows is the problem with how we talk about landmine clearance and what it means to be “landmine free.”

Allowing my inner lawyer out, there are really three standards that can be applied to a country: “landmine-free,” “landmine impact free,” and “compliant with Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty.” “Landmine-free” means just that: there are absolutely no landmines in a given area, usually a country. It is an absolute and probably only reflects countries in which landmines have never been used.  It also encompasses all landmines, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle.  “Landmine impact free” and “compliant with Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty” have very specific definitions which may or may not meet the absolute standard of “landmine-free.”

Compliance with Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty means that all known anti-personnel landmines have been cleared from a country.  A country can still have known anti-vehicle mine contamination and be compliant with the Article 5 because the Mine Ban Treaty’s obligations are specific to anti-personnel landmines.  Compliance only affects the 162 countries party to the Mine Ban Treaty.

Landmine impact free (as defined in the International Mine Action Standards) can mean that a country may still have landmines, anti-personnel or anti-vehicle, but such mines do not have a negative socio-economic effect on communities.  Countries not party to the Mine Ban Treaty can (and often do) aspire to being landmine impact free.

“Compliant with Article 5” and “landmine impact free” are both time-specific descriptions.  Because compliance with Article 5 means only known landmines are cleared, a country that has previously declared itself compliant with Article 5 can identify previously-unknown minefields and still be compliant.  This happened in Burundi and Germany and the governments then proceeded to clear the newly discovered minefields.  Because landmine impact free refers to the absence of negative socio-economic effects on communities, there is the possibility that changes in a community would change the effect existing landmines have on that community.  For example, a particular community could exist for some time next to a marked and known minefield but when that community grows in population and begins to need additional agricultural land to support itself, the community might encroach upon the minefield because there is no other available land for farming.  By definition, a country that has completed landmine clearance under Article 5 is landmine impact free.

So where does that mean for Zambia?  Zambia is in compliance with Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty.  Zambia is landmine impact free.  Is Zambia absolutely landmine free?  Maybe, maybe not; but Zambia should be proud of clearing all known landmines and fulfilling its obligations under the Mine Ban Treaty and should not be silent about it.  Zambia’s foreign minister Harry Chiluba has been traveling throughout the country to reassure Zambians that there are no known landmine dangers in the country and that should any threats be discovered, the government will respond swiftly and fulfill its obligations to survivors and victims of mines.  Thus, Zambia is doing everything it can to live up to the aspiration of being landmine free.

Michael P. Moore

November 17, 2014

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

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One Comment on “When language gets in the way of good news: Is Zambia “landmine-free”?”

  1. Amelie at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines says:

    Thanks Michael for an excellent post! We have been informed by the UK Foreign Affairs that their travel advice on Zambia has been amended and now refers to a possible risk of explosive remnants of war in general, as opposed to antipersonnel mines. Zambia maintains the capacity to deal with such ERW as needed.


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