Interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Walter Givhan

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the privilege to engage in an extended email question and answer session with the US State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans, Programs and Operations, Maj. General Walter D. Givhan (Biography from State Department).  General Givhan oversees the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM / WRA), among other assignments, within the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM).   As such, General Givhan is responsible for the US Humanitarian Mine Action Program and the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program and implements the current US Landmine Policy (State Department).

General Givhan took the opportunity to bring up the work done by PM / WRA on protecting civilians from the dangers of aging ammunition depots and combatting the proliferation of man-portable air-defense systems.  He also offered some insight into the State Department’s perspectives on the Mine Ban Treaty (referred to below as “the Ottawa Treaty”) and negotiations surrounding anti-vehicle mines and cluster munitions within the context of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

I was interested to hear how political events in Guinea-Bissau (a coup in April of this year) and Sudan (expulsion of humanitarian deminers) had affected the State Department’s priorities and on the demining work being done in those countries.  I was also pleased to hear that General Givhan and PM are active to protect the funding made available for humanitarian demining from the budget fights on Capitol Hill.

I do worry that the consolidation of humanitarian mine action into the broader Conventional Weapons Destruction program could lead to reduced support for mine action in the future.  I absolutely support the elimination of ammunition depots from populated areas because of the tremendous risk they pose, risks made evident from recent explosions in Brazzaville (BBC News), Lagos (Guardian) and Maputo  (Metro).  However, in Libya, the US government prioritized securing MANPADS over landmines and while some of the funds made available for MANPADS destruction also covered landmine destruction and removal, the intent was to eliminate the MANPADS.  This is understandable from a national security and national interests perspective: the United States is not going to be threatened by landmines in the ground in Libya, but US airplanes flying in Libyan airspace could be targeted by MANPADS in Libya.  However, the humanitarian impact of MANPADS is dwarfed by that of landmines and this blog is based on the idea that the humanitarian impact should trump the national security argument.  Compare if you will the following: since 1975, MANPADS have been responsible for more than 800 civilian deaths (State Department); in 2012 alone landmines were responsible for more.

My thanks go to David I. McKeeby in PM’s Office of Congressional & Public Affairs for his help facilitating these exchanges.

Landmines in Africa: In 2011, the US funded mine clearance programs in Angola, Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mozambique, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan; how does the State Department choose which countries to support humanitarian mine action programs?

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Walter Givhan: The purpose of humanitarian mine action is to protect victims of conflict and to restore access to land and infrastructure for internally displaced persons and for returning refugees in post-conflict situations.  Humanitarian Mine Action is a necessary precursor for economic development activities and for humanitarian relief.  With this purpose, the Department of State chooses to support requests for Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance, including humanitarian mine action, in countries where these efforts will have the greatest humanitarian impact.

For example in FY 12, the Department of State began providing assistance for clearance activities in Zimbabwe.  There is heavy mine contamination in Zimbabwe and there have been over 1,500 human casualties and over 120,000 accidents with livestock.  Humanitarian demining activities will reduce the likelihood of such accidents.

Specific factors used to determine whether to provide assistance to a country include:  the amount and location of the landmines/unexploded ordnance (UXO); the capacity of the host nation; and whether the security and political situation is favorable to carrying out demining and UXO removal.

LIA: As a follow-up, what criteria does the Department use to determine whether or not to continue funding programs in countries where support has been given?

DAS Givhan: The Department of State uses the same criteria to determine whether or not to continue funding a program as it does on whether or not to establish a program.

LIA. Are there any countries the Department wanted to support humanitarian mine action programs in, but did not and why?

DAS Givhan: Yes, in FY 2012 there were two:

  • The Department had planned to provide Humanitarian Mine Action assistance to Guinea-Bissau.  However, given the April 12, 2012 coup, the United States was obliged to terminate foreign assistance to the Government of Guinea-Bissau consistent with the requirements of section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act for 2012.
  • The Department also suspended its support for programs in Sudan when the government of Sudan asked all of the humanitarian demining NGOs to leave the country and seized their equipment.  In addition, political unrest has led to significant personnel reductions at U.S. Embassy Khartoum, which compromises our ability to monitor demining programs in country.

LIA: The Bureau of Political-Military [PM] Affairs primarily funds mine clearance and mine risk education programs and victim assistance programming and funding is mostly left to USAID’s Leahy War Victims’ Fund; do you believe there is a role for PM to support victim assistance and how would PM fulfill that role?

DAS Givhan: The State Department does fund survivor assistance programs when they are complementary to our mine action programs and are not duplicative of work being undertaken by USAID.  In these cases, we coordinate with our colleagues at USAID to ensure the best use of funding.   Any assistance programs managed by USAID and the Department of State do not differentiate victims by the munition that caused their injury.

Although we did not provide survivor assistance in Africa in FY 2011, we did provide funding for survivor assistance in Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Peru, Vietnam, and Yemen.  PM/WRA funding for survivor assistance generally includes rehabilitation and vocational services.

LIA: With the budget fights on Capitol Hill, how will PM preserve the funding for humanitarian mine action?

DAS Givhan: The Department of State’s Conventional Weapons Destruction programs receive widespread bipartisan support from Congress.  We appreciate this support and will continue to make the case to Congress that these programs are effective and in the nation’s interest.

LIA: The Convention on Conventional Weapons framework has recently considered Mines other than Anti-Personnel Mines (meaning anti-vehicle mines) and cluster munitions; where do you think these negotiations will go?

DAS Givhan: The United States has been a leader in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) efforts on Mines other than Anti-Personnel Mines (MOTAPM).  The United States was among the original co-sponsors of a proposed additional protocol to address the indiscriminate use of MOTAPM in the years leading up to the Third Review Conference of the CCW in 2006.  We were frustrated that the CCW was forced to suspend this work because of the inability of states to reach consensus at that Conference.

We have been supportive of the decision to resume work with an expert-level meeting and actively participated in the discussion at this meeting in April.  We fully recognize the humanitarian threat associated with the indiscriminate and irresponsible use of MOTAPM and believe that there is room for specific restrictions on the use of MOTAPM in addition to the relevant provisions of CCW Amended Protocol II (Mines, Booby Traps, and other Explosive Devices).  We look forward to further discussing this issue at the CCW Meeting of High Contracting Parties in November.

The United States was deeply disappointed by the failure of the Fourth Review Conference of the CCW to conclude a protocol on cluster munitions.  The protocol would have prohibited a greater number of cluster munitions for the United States alone than the Oslo Convention has prohibited for all of its member states combined. There are no further negotiations scheduled at this time.  The CCW States Parties could decide to restart negotiations in the future, but that seems unlikely anytime soon.  

LIA: The Administration initiated a review of the 2004 US Landmine Policy; what is the status of that review and do you foresee any significant changes on the horizon?

DAS Givhan: We have not made a decision on U.S. accession to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Production, Stockpiling and Transfer of Anti-Personnel landmines (Ottawa Convention).

The operational issues raised by accession require careful consideration, and this work is ongoing.

The United States shares the humanitarian concern of parties to the Ottawa Convention and sent an observer delegation to the 11th Meeting of States Parties to the Ottawa Convention, November 28-December 2, 2011, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

We continue to demonstrate our commitment to addressing the potential humanitarian consequences caused by landmines:

  • The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action, and since 1993 (through October 2012) has provided over $2 billion in aid in over 90 countries for conventional weapons destruction programs, including clearance of landmines and unexploded munitions.
  • The United States has ended use of all non-detectable mines, both anti-personnel, as well as anti-vehicle mines, which are not covered by the Ottawa Convention.
  • The United States ended all use of persistent mines, both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle, at the end of 2010.  These are the mines that can remain active years or even decades after a conflict ends.

In addition, the United States has ratified the Amended Mines Protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a separate international treaty that establishes transparent and verifiable standards for the use of landmines to minimize risks to civilians.

LIA: Mine clearance activities funded by the State Department rely on tried and true techniques such as manual clearance, mechanical clearance and mine detection dogs; are there any new or emerging techniques, e.g., rats, acoustics, chemical films, that you find intriguing and why?

DAS Givhan: The State Department is generally not involved in Research and Development for humanitarian mine clearance techniques.  We refer you to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Humanitarian Demining Research and Development (HD R&D) Program which focuses on developing technologies to improve the efficiency and safety of removing post-conflict landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).  HD R&D designs, builds, demonstrates, and evaluates prototype mine-and UXO-clearing technologies for indigenous, host-nation-conducted demining operations supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.

LIA: Will the US be represented at December’s Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and if so, what will your goals for attendance be; if not, will the US participate in the next Review Conference?

DAS Givhan: The United States has attended the Ottawa Convention annual meetings since the 2009 Cartagena Review Conference.  This has been a useful opportunity to meet with representatives from other states and non-governmental organizations to discuss and coordinate our common humanitarian mine action efforts.

No formal decision has been made regarding attendance this year.  (As of 11/15/12, no decision had been made).

LIA: [Regarding] question 5, I did not specifically ask about the Ottawa Treaty.  I am glad to hear that the US Government is reviewing what the consequences of accession to the Ottawa Treaty would be and is committed to addressing the potential humanitarian consequences of anti-personnel landmines, but I would also like to know more about the review of the US Government’s 2004 Landmine Policy.  Does your response mean that the central question of the review was whether or not the US Government should accede to the Ottawa Treaty?  Or did the review have another central question at its core?  Also, do you know when a decision on accession to the Ottawa Treaty might be made, since consideration on that question is ongoing?

[Question truncated by the State Department to: “Regarding the 2004 Landmine Policy Review, was the central question of the review whether or not the United States should accede to the Ottawa Treaty, or did the review have another central question at its core?  What is the timeline for the current Landmine Policy Review?”]

DAS Givhan: While I’m obviously not in a position to speak to the internal deliberations of previous administrations, this statement from Lincoln Bloomfield, the Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs at the time of the 2004 Landmine Policy announcement summarizes their vision.

We are mindful of the humanitarian consequences of indiscriminate landmine use.  Indeed, the United States remains the world’s largest donor to humanitarian mine action.

The operational issues raised by the review require careful consideration, and this work is ongoing.

LIA: What will success look like for the US’s Convention Weapons Destruction Program?

DAS Givhan: Substantial assistance from the United States and other donors over the last 20 years has significantly reduced casualties from landmine and unexploded munitions.  While our vision of success is to continue this trend, explosions from munitions depots are of growing concern.  Our experience has shown us that overlap often exists between explosive remnants of war (ERW), at-risk small arms and light weapons, including man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), and excess, unsecured or unstable conventional munitions.

To more effectively confront these overlapping threats to human and national security, our programs and funding have merged under an umbrella known as Conventional Weapons Destruction.  Our consolidated CWD budget increases flexibility by allowing program implementers the ability to address multiple threats simultaneously for greater efficiency and impact.

Increasingly, our efforts have focused on destroying unstable munitions before they explode and helping states to improve management of their stockpiles to prevent such tragic humanitarian disasters, as well as cleaning up depot explosions when they do occur.  Unfortunately, due to the enormous challenge before us, efforts to mitigate ERW and munitions depot explosions will continue to be a long-term effort.

Michael P. Moore, November 19, 2012

Weapons of Potential Destruction vs. Weapons of Actual Destruction

In Libya, forces loyal to the Transitional National Council have announced discoveries of mustard gas (The Guardian) and uranium yellowcake (Reuters). The presence and location of the mustard gas (yes, the same stuff used by German forces in World War 1) was known to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) knew the location of the uranium yellowcake.  In addition to the monitoring by these international organizations, the United States was using “national technical means” (i.e., drones and spy satellites) to monitor the security of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (State Department).  The US did not believe these WMD posed any immediate danger because Libya lacked the means to deliver the WMD; the State Department, through spokesperson Victoria Nuland, even deplored “fear mongering” in the media about the delivery of Libya’s potential WMD by missiles and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction from Libya generally.

However, not seconds later, Ms. Nuland started to stoke the fires of fear herself by expressing concern about the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).  Small Arms Survey describes MANPADS as “short-range surface-to-air missile systems intended for attacking and defending against low-flying aircraft… Today’s most advanced MANPADS can effectively engage aircraft at ranges up to 8,000 m[eters] (5 miles)” (Small Arms Survey, pdf). Between 2002 and 2007, thirteen incidents of MANPADS attacks on aircraft have been identified; nine against military targets, four against civilian.  Ten events occurred in Iraq and one each in Chechnya, Somalia and Kenya.  The four attacks on civilian aircraft resulted in one plane crashing with 11 fatalities, another making an emergency landing after being severely damaged and two misses (Small Arms Survey, pdf).  Perhaps the most famous incident involving MANPADS is the 1994 shooting down of the plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents that sparked the genocide in Rwanda (Small Arms Survey, pdf). 

According to Ms. Nuland, the United States’s main proliferation concern from Libya’s military stockpiles is MANPADS.  The extant of possible MANPADS proliferation is unknown, Libya’s stockpile of the weapon “was not something that Qadhafi was in the business of publishing, and he was… good at hiding stuff;” but Nuland was clear that the US does not have any concerns about hidden chemical weapons or radiological materials.  The US’s concern about MANPADS proliferation comes from “scattered intelligence indicating that weapons stolen from Gaddafi’s stockpiles may have made their way to insurgents or militants in nearby countries, such as Niger, and North African nations” (Reuters).  Those “insurgents or militants” includes Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Al Qaeda branch active in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia (Council on Foreign Relations) raising the spectre that terrorists could start to target commercial aircraft flying over North Africa.

In response to these concerns, the US has provided $3 million to Mines Advisory Group and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action to train Libyans in the dismantling and destruction of MANPADS.  Mines Advisory Group has so far destroyed 8,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance since March 2011, including “anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, sub-munitions and surface-to-air missiles” (Mines Advisory Group).  Overall, US-funded mine action has “cleared over 450,000 square meters of land and destroyed over 5.8 tons of munitions, including five MANPADS” (State Department).  Please re-read that statement.  Five MANPADS, each of which weighs about 50 pounds, out of almost 12,000 pounds of explosive material.  In sheer weight, number and explosive capacity, other pieces of ordnance exceed MANPADS by several orders of magnitude.  Despite the high level of fear about MANPADS, as expressed by the US State Department, the reality on the ground is this: landmines are the greater threat right now.

According to one blogger:

“The number of landmines planted by Gaddafi troops in the district between Ajdabiya and Sirte towns, is estimated at 60 thousand anti-personnel and anti-armour landmines. The engineering corps of the Libyan NTC national army has cleared 21 thousand of them up to the present. The district around al-Brega is the largest land-mined zone in Libya, where many army and civilian victims were hit by landmines” (Live Libya Updates, February 17th).

The distance, by road, between Ajdabiya and Sirte is 409 kilometers, so there are almost 150 landmines per kilometer between Ajdabiya and Sirte, one every 20 feet.  Although NTC forces have cleared more than 21,000 mines (again, compared to five MANPADS), another 40,000 remain just along Libya’s coastal highway.  One estimate suggests that 18 months will be needed to clear all of the mines from around Libya’s oil infrastructure, but that would leave other minefields untouched (The Energy Report). 

Prior to the current conflict, “Gaddafi’s regime placed millions of land mines along Libya’s eastern and southern borders with Egypt and Chad… There are also millions of unexploded remnants still leftover from World War II on Libya’s northeast coast” (The Global Post).  For comparison, Sri Lanka, with half a million landmines from its decades of civil wars will require a decade or more to clear (Times of India).  Clearing Libya’s minefields could take generations.  Casualties from landmines in Libya have yet to be compiled, but the Global Post reported three civilian casualties near Ajdabiya and five deminer casualties near the Tunisian border; the Landmine Monitor recorded “over a period of six weeks in 2011, there were 13 reported casualties from ERW in Misrata alone.”  In 2009, the last year for which data was available, only a dozen landmine and ERW injuries were reported (The Monitor).

Despite the imminent and very real hazard from landmines, the United States is focused on MANPADS. Reporting on information from an anonymous State Department source, the Washington Post said “MANPADs pose a serious danger. While many of the aging rockets may not work, the Soviet-era man-portable air defense systems require no special training to operate and officials say prices have fallen on the regional black market, suggesting some of Gadhafi’s stores have been sold… [A] U.S. official said the terror threat was related to weapons such as MANPADs may have been obtained by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (Washington Post, emphasis added).

Aviation Week discounts the threat from MANPADS, saying “A top official from Russian KBM Machine-building design bureau confirmed it was his company that supplied the Libyan government forces with the truck mounted short-range anti-aircraft Igla-S (SA-24 Grinch) missiles recently spotted by the international media… He explained that the Libyan Strelets fire Igla-S missiles but they can not be used as man-portable air defense (manpads). ‘To fire Iglas as a man-portable weapon you need a separate trigger mechanisms that were not supplied to Libya’” (Aviation Week).  CJ Chivers of the New York Times continues: “there is no known evidence that the manufacturer’s claim is false, or that Libya possessed the so-called “grip stocks” that would allow a shooter to fire these missiles from the shoulder, which would make these weapons, once loose, a much more worrisome bit of post-conflict contraband” (CJ Chivers). 

Therefore, the possible proliferation of looted weapons from Gaddhafi’s stockpiles does not constitute an imminent threat to civilian or military aircraft.  The explosive material from the looted stockpiles can be converted into improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but the very real and current threat of landmines in Libya exceeds the potential threat from MANPADS.  The reason for the US State Department’s focus on MANPADS instead of landmines is simple: landmines in Libya are only a threat to Libyans and persons on the ground in Libya.  MANPADS pose a potential threat to people outside of Libya (or flying over Libya and Libya’s neighboring states at less than the cruising altitudes used by civilian aviation) and that potential threat is enough to create media attention and provide funding for MANPADS destruction in Libya.  My ask to the State Department is this: even if all of Libya’s MANPADS are found, secured and destroyed, continue to fund and support demining and destruction of landmines in Libya. 

Michael P. Moore, September 27, 2011.