All About Landmines, An FAQ

Q: What are landmines?

A: Landmines are a man-made epidemic.  They kill and injure thousands of people and persist for decades after the wars in which they were used.

Q: Wait, before you launch into another 3,000 word epic, please think of those of us with short attention spans.  Do you have anything on YouTube?

A:  Sure, check out the following videos:

Back to the text…

Landmines are explosive items that are intended to deny access to a particular area. Landmines can be victim-activated (triggered when a person or vehicle applies pressure to a surface or tripwire or similar initiator) or command-activated (triggered by the person controlling the device).  Landmines are also designed to be anti-personnel or anti-vehicle depending upon their size, amount of explosive material and sensitivity.  Anti-personnel landmines were first used to protect anti-tank landmines from tampering, but over time have come to be used separately.  Victim-activated, anti-personnel landmines are subject to a global ban, the Mine Ban Treaty or Ottawa Treaty, because they cannot discriminate between military and civilian targets and their military utility is outweighed by their humanitarian impact, especially since many anti-personnel landmines are designed to maim and wound and not kill their victims. Command-activated landmines are not banned because the person using them can discriminate between military and civilian targets; anti-tank mines are not banned because their perceived military utility is (still) considered greater than their humanitarian impact.  Most anti-tank landmines are also designed to not be triggered by a person walking over them, requiring several hundred pounds of force such as that generated by the tire or track of a vehicle.

Q: Are improvised explosive devices (IEDs) landmines?

A: Yes.  Landmines are defined by how they work and can include factory made items (the “classic” landmine) and home-made bombs (IEDs).  IEDs, if they are activated by a cell phone or similar remote device, would be considered command-activated landmines. An IED triggered by trip wire or pressure plate would be a victim-activated landmine and banned under the Mine Ban Treaty.  The United States has a practice of labeling almost every explosive device used by insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan as an IED.  Almost certainly some of the explosives that have wounded American and allied soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were landmines, but few people are motivated to examine the remnants of the explosives after they are used.

Q: How many landmines are buried around the world?

A: Unfortunately, landmine statistics suffer from massive deficiencies in accuracy.  The simple answer is no one knows just how many landmines are in the world, but the number is in the tens of millions.  The number of landmines produced by a given country is usually not public knowledge, although there are estimates of the size of current stockpiles of countries that have not signed the Mine Ban Treaty.  Those current stockpiles though are a function of the number of landmines made, minus the number used, minus the number destroyed, minus the number exported to other countries.  The number of mines exported to other countries is also not often publicized nor are the destination countries public.  There are “end-user certificates” which are designed to identify who the intended recipient country of an arms transfer is, but those certificates are routinely forged or simply not accurate (when they exist at all).  So, no one knows exactly how many mines exist in the stockpiles of countries that have not signed the Treaty; countries that have signed the Treaty are required to report on (and then destroy) stockpiles.

There are estimates of the number of landmines that are in the ground for some mine-affected countries, but not all.  Those estimates are based on a number of factors: total affected area, known numbers of landmines per hectare based upon clearance data, interviews with persons who placed mines and, very occasionally, actual maps of the minefields.  For example, this article estimates that there are more than 3 million landmines in Mozambique, but after nearly completing the clearance, the final number was actually closer to 300,000. The article doesn’t identify Zimbabwe which has recently been subject to greater survey and may have 2 or 3 million mines along its borders.  However, the fact is that it does not matter how many mines are in a country.  Just the rumor of a landmine can close a road or farmer’s field.

Q: How many people are killed or injured by landmines every year?

A: Two of the most quoted figures you will see (which are simply different presentations of the same statistic) are: 1) 20,000 people killed or injured by landmines every year, and 2) one person is killed every 20 (or 22 if you are being precise) minutes.  This statistic is wrong and may never have been right.  It was based upon estimates of landmines casualties in the early 1990s and not reflective of any systematic data collection exercise.  The best current estimate is roughly 4,000 people every year are killed or injured by landmines or other explosive remnants of war in landmine-affected countries and is based upon an annual review of government statistics and newspaper reports.  There is the possibility that many more people are killed or injured by landmines and are never reported because they die before they reach a hospital or never access formal medical care, but in the absence of confirmation, the best estimate is 4,000 per year or one person every two hours.

It is not unreasonable to say that landmines have killed or injured more persons than all other weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological) combined.  Landmines have often been referred to as “weapons of mass destruction in slow motion,” not only because of the people they directly injure, but also the effect they have on communities.  Landmine victims are not just those injured by mines, but are also the families and communities affected by mines which have reduced agricultural outputs and household incomes.

Q: If I want to do something about landmines, who should I talk to?

A: It sounds cheesy, but the best thing you can do is donate money to one of the mine action organizations, most of whom are charitable, not-for-profit organizations.  Depending upon your personal interests, you can support organizations that clear landmines, provide mine risk education, offer rehabilitation services, provide opportunities for survivors to play sports, provide job training or micro-credit to survivors or advocate on landmine issues.  At the risk of waffling, I can’t recommend any specific organizations, but suggest you search for one that interests you or send me a note describing what you are looking for.

Q: What countries have not banned landmines?

A: Unfortunately, some of the largest and strongest militaries in the world – the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, Iran, Israel and Egypt – have not signed the Mine Ban Treaty and therefore retain the right the produce and use victim-activated anti-personnel landmines. Other countries, Georgia for example, have not signed the Treaty because their neighbors have failed to do so and some countries, like small Pacific Island states, have not signed the Treaty because they lack the capacity to meet the terms of the Treaty (especially the clearance and reporting requirements).

Q: Why hasn’t the United States banned landmines?

A: The problem is, the US thinks it has, in a very technical and legalistic sense.  There are two international treaties that regulate the use of landmines. The first, Protocol II (amended) of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was signed in 1996 and has been strongly supported by the United States because it regulates the use of anti-personnel landmines but does not provide for an outright prohibition.  The Mine Ban Treaty, which actually prohibits anti-personnel landmines, was drafted as a direct response to the perceived weakness of the CCW.  The US has a published policy from 2004 which governs its use of landmines and is far stronger than what the CCW requires and generally is compliant with the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty, but reserves the right to use landmines in extraordinary circumstances.  Those circumstances are not defined, but are likely not related to relations on the Korean Peninsula.  It is a mistake to think that the US protects the right to use landmines to maintain a minefield between North and South Korea.  The simple fact is that landmines are not what deters the North Korean army from invading South Korea, it’s the threat of wholesale annihilation by the US nuclear arsenal that deters the North Koreans.  That’s why North Korea so desperately wants its own nuclear bombs.  North Korea callously allowed a tenth of its population to starve to death; the North Korean army would have no problem marching a column of soldiers through the minefields to “open” a corridor for an invasion of South Korea.

The United States was once the undisputed leader in the fight for the global ban on landmines.  Senator Patrick Leahy pushed for an export moratorium on anti-personnel landmines that has been in place since the early 1990s and Bill Clinton called for a global ban on landmines in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1994.  The US is still the largest donor to mine action and supports clearance work around the world through programs at the State Department and the Department of Defense.   There was some hope that the Obama Administration would support the Mine Ban Treaty and submit it to the Senate for ratification.  During his first term, Obama received a letter from 68 Senators declaring their willing to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty, but he never submitted it.  The Administration did call for a review of the 2004 landmine policy, a review which is rumored to be complete with recommendations forward to the President, but landmines appear to be a very low priority for the Obama Administration at this time.

Q: I want to clear landmines, where can I learn how?

A: The best place to learn landmine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) is from the national military in your country.  Most militaries possess an EOD unit and those are often the best trained and most experienced in any particular country and the group from which most humanitarian demining organizations recruit from.  Many humanitarian demining organizations will train the nationals of the mine-affected countries and then employ them to clear mines in their home countries.  If you are not a resident of a mine-affected country and do not wish to enlist, there are a couple of organizations that train (at a cost) individuals to become certified deminers according to International Mine Action Standards (IMAS).  South Africa’s MECHEM is one, PAX Mondial is another and ECSI is a third.  I cannot speak to the quality of these trainings or the career prospects following such courses, so you should contact the training centers prior to registering.

Q: Who supports mine action?

A: As mentioned above, the United States is the largest single donor to mine action, contributing over US $1 billion for the cause over the years.  The European Commission is another very large donor, possibly exceeding the United States.  Other significant donors include the bilateral agencies of (in no particular order) the Norwegian, British, Canadian, Swiss, Australian and Japanese governments.  The United Nations has established a Voluntary Trust Fund for Mine Action run by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) to which states can contribute funds.  Funds are also often channeled through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Relief Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  Other governments, including Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Germany and New Zealand provide financial support to mine action.

In addition to government support, the landmine issue has received a lot of celebrity attention and support.  From royalty (Princess Diana and Prince Harry from Great Britain; Queen Noor and Prince Mired Bin Raad of Jordan) to musicians (Paul McCartney, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris) to Hollywood (Oren Moverman, Jonathan Goldsmith AKA “the Most Interesting Man,” Angelina Jolie) to sports (Cristiano Ronaldo, David Ginola), landmines have never lacked high-profile advocates.  But more importantly, a number of landmine survivors have been some of the most visible champions of this cause.  Tun Chennareth, Chris Moon, Jerry White, Giles Duley, Stuart Hughes, Ken Rutherford are a few of the many, many landmine survivors who have overcome their injuries to advocate of behalf of others.

Q: What countries are affected by landmines?

A: One quarter to one third of all countries in the world have some landmine contamination.  North America, Australia and Antarctica are free of mines, but South America, Africa, Asia and Europe have extensive minefields.  Afghanistan, Angola, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Cambodia and Iraq are probably the most mine-affected countries.  Landmines were used extensively throughout World War II, the Cold War and the civil wars of the 1990s.  The Landmine Monitor, published annually, presents the most comprehensive report of landmine contamination.

Q: What happens when you step on a landmine?

A: In movies, a character will step on a landmine, hear an audible “click” and then have either a second to register dismay (if he’s the bad guy) or an eternity because the mine won’t detonate until he steps off the mine (if he’s the good guy).  This doesn’t happen in real life (see piece about Hollywood’s use of landmines here).

“I did not hear a click when I stepped on the mine. If you picture yourself walking across a field on a sunny day, that is what I was doing. Then everything exploded.” Jerry White, landmine survivor.

Landmines are shaped charges.  Their casings direct the force of the blast in an arc to maximize damage.  Some mines will have pieces of metal embedded in the mine which are then propelled in the direction of the blast, but many do not.  The blast will drive shrapnel from the mine, grass, dirt, clothing and bone into the victim.  At least a quarter of all landmine injuries are fatal (it is presumed that many fatal injuries are never reported because the victim dies before reaching medical assistance), of those that are not fatal, the majority require amputation of one or more limbs, usually the legs.  All too often limbs are lost in the blast and surgical intervention is necessary to prevent infection and remove shrapnel.   Blood loss can be extensive.  Survivors require extension medical treatment and rehabilitation assistance which is often unavailable in mine-affected countries.  Costs for care can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of multiple surgical interventions, physical rehabilitation and prosthetics which need replacing every few years (or six months for child victims).

Q: When were landmines first used?

A: Like so many other elements of “modern” warfare, landmines as we might recognize them were first used in the American Civil War.  During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863, Confederate engineers created explosive booby-traps using cannon shells and buried these shells along approaches to the Confederate lines.  Referred to as “torpedoes” these mines injured a few soldiers in grim forecasts of events to come. World War I saw the extensive use of factory-built mines along the lines of the Western Front.

Q: Who still uses landmines today?

A: Very few governments still use landmines.  In recent years, Israel, Libya, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen have used anti-personnel landmines that would be banned under the Mine Ban Treaty (and Yemen’s use is a violation of the Treaty since Yemen is a party).  The low level of usage is due to the stigma against the use of landmines that has evolved since the Mine Ban Treaty came into effect.  While few governments use mines, many rebel groups still use mines although this number is also decreasing due to the difficulty in acquiring mines with a de facto global export ban in place.

Q: If I want to know more, where can I go?

A: The five places I go first when I have questions are the following:

  • The International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Founded in 1992, the ICBL has led the charge to ban landmines and is composed of over 1,000 member organizations around the world.
  • The Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining.  The GICHD (pronounced “JIK”) serves as the secretariat for the Mine Ban Treaty and staffs the President of the Meetings of States Parties.  Most official documentation related to the Treaty is here and the GICHD also conducts a lot of research and technical assistance for mine-affected countries.
  • The Landmine Monitor.  The annual publication of the ICBL, the Landmine Monitor is the monitoring and verification tool for the Mine Ban Treaty.  With updates on all mine-affected countries and mine-related issues, this is a necessary reference.
  • The United Nations Mine Action Service.  UNMAS is the key actor for all landmine work involving the United Nations.  Interacts with other UN agencies including UNICEF, UNDP and peacekeeping operations.
  • The Center for International Stabilization and Recovery.  Hosted by James Madison University and support by the US State Department, CISR trains mine action program managers from around the world and published the Journal of ERW and Mine Action.

Updated August 22, 2013

Michael P. Moore


4 Comments on “All About Landmines, An FAQ”

  1. […] All About Landmines, An FAQ of Infrequently Asked Questions […]

  2. Elissaveta says:

    Very informative FAQ. Thank you!
    Can I ask you a question?
    I’m a writer currently researching my first novel and was wondering if you knew if there are any landmines in Southern Morocco? I don’t mean Western Sahara but rather the area along the western section of the river Draa, around the area where the moroccan-algerian border drops vertically?
    I’d appreciate your help with this. Thanks a lot!


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