Landmines and the Crisis in South Sudan

This blog was inspired by a snippet of a news story in the Washington Post.  On June 5, 2011, the following appeared, buried at the bottom of a page:

From the Washington Post, June 5, 2011

From the Washington Post, June 5, 2011

A month later, South Sudan was the newest country in the world.  Since independence, reports of new landmine use have appeared in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity States in South Sudan (to be fair, new use has also been reported in Sudan).  Last month’s eruption of violence in Sudan, between groups loyal to South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, and the ousted Vice President, Riek Machar, have killed thousands of people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.  I have been monitoring the news stories for reports of landmine use and have thankfully seen none to date.  However, the mass displacement we are currently seeing in South Sudan will result in some landmine casualties.

People who are displaced, either internally or as refugees, are among the highest risk populations for landmine injuries.  The most mine-affected states in South Sudan are Central Equatoria (where the capitol, Juba, is), Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei and Upper Nile.  All four states have seen violence in recent weeks, with the largest number of displaced persons in Jonglei state.  The movement of people is in both directions; for example, some people are fleeing violence in Jonglei while others are going there for refuge.  Some people are relying on United Nations bases in Bentiu (Unity State), Malakal (Upper Nile State), Bor (Jonglei State) and Juba (Central Equatoria State) for security.

More than 600,000 people have been displaced, either internally or as refugees in neighboring countries, and as the displaced move to seek safety and security, they are exposing themselves to the very immediate risks of landmines.  Last week, Radio Tamazuj reported that two people had been killed and 14 others had been wounded by a landmine blast in Manyo Country of Upper Nile State.  Those killed and wounded had been riding in a vehicle that “was serving people who were displaced to different areas of the county by insecurity when it was hit by the land mine.” The mine was not believed to be newly laid, but a remnant from earlier conflicts (Radio Tamazuj).   Some 10,000 people have been killed and while the vast majority of those casualties are the results of gunshots or violent attacks, I would expect the number killed by landmines to be greater than the two reported so far.  In 2012, the number of landmine victims in South Sudan dropped from more than 200 to just 22 (The Monitor), but this spate of extreme violence will likely be accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of casualties, yet another issue for the world’s newest state to grapple with as it tries to achieve a lasting peace.

Now that a cessation of hostilities agreement has been signed (Lesley on Africa), some of the displaced may be on the move to their home villages and towns and again exposing themselves to dangers.  The authorities need to ensure that minefield markers are current and that any persons in refugee or displacement camps are provided with mine-risk education so they are aware of the risks during travel.

Michael P. Moore

January 27, 2014


Landmines, Refugees and Kampala Convention on Displaced Persons

Today, June 20th is World Refugee Day and in recognition of the day and the threat that landmines and explosive remnants of war pose for refugees, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor released a new report, “Landmines and Refugees: The Risks and the Responsibilities to Protect and Assist Victims.”

According to the report, “refugees or IDPs [internally displaced persons] that survive explosions, like other persons with disabilities, are among the most vulnerable groups of refugees and IDPs. They are the first who are affected physically, socially, and economically and the last to get assistance.”  Also, because of “new use of landmines in Unity State, near South Sudan’s northern border, returnees have faced a myriad of hazards. In 2011, more than 200 people were killed or injured by landmines/ERW in South Sudan, most in Unity State. Many of those people were on their way back from Sudan.”  The presence of landmines in the disputed Abyei region has prevented the return of thousands of displaced persons.

The report details the difficulty refugee landmine survivors face when trying to access rehabilitation services.  Somali, Sudanese and Sahrawi refugees rely on limited service provision in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Algeria and face inequalities in access to shelter, education and economic activities and live with the additional threat of sexual violence and abuse.  On their return to their home countries, refugees often encounter devastated lands where meeting the basic needs of life are a challenge.

The report reminds states of their obligations to protect refugees under the United Nations Refugee Convention to which most countries are a party.  The Executive Committee of the UN High Commission on Refugees called on states to “protect and assist refugees [with disabilities] and other persons with disabilities against all forms of discrimination and to provide sustainable and appropriate support in addressing all their needs…”  However, the provisions of the Refugee Convention are the minimum standards and in some places, regional conventions and agreements provide for a higher standard of care and response.

In regards to Africa, there is the Kampala Convention (the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa; The Guardian; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre), which came into force just six months ago, and is the only treaty that specifically addresses the needs and situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are specifically not covered by the Refugee Convention. In Africa, there are four times as many IDPs as refugees.  Among mine-affected countries, States Parties to the Convention include Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Uganda and Zambia. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Senegal, Somalia and Zimbabwe have signed but not ratified the Kampala Convention which means that they are committed to following the Convention in principle.  Kenya and the Sudans have neither signed nor ratified.

Article 11 of the Kampala Convention provides for the safe return of IDPs, saying, “States Parties shall seek lasting solutions to the problem of displacement by promoting or creating satisfactory conditions for voluntary return, local integration or relocation on a sustainable basis and in circumstances of safety and dignity.”  During a Brookings Institute briefing on the Convention, Chaloka Beyani, one of the drafters of the Convention, confirmed that clearing known minefields would be an obligation of States Parties since the priority of the Convention is the safe return of displaced persons.  Alternatively, in places where land is abundant and if displaced persons are in agreement, relocation to known mine-free areas is acceptable which has been the practice in Angola where the low population density has allowed the country to re-settle the displaced.  In either case, safe return or relocation, the Kampala Convention requires the States to assure the safety of displaced persons from landmines and other ERW.

Michael P. Moore

June 20, 2013


When displacement, landmines and racism mix: the fate of Eritreans in Libya

A couple of weeks ago, Human Rights Concern  – Eritrea (HRC-E), a UK-based NGO working on behalf of the human rights of Eritreans in Eritrea and the diaspora, issued this report:

76 Eritrean refugees in Libya are being used to clear land mines in Sirte, the home town of the late Gaddafi. The refugees are forced all day to clear land mines. These are not trained professionals. This is not humanitarian de-mining. This is a callous, inhuman treatment of humans as if they were disposable pieces of equipment. It amounts to nothing less than murder.

These refugees are not given access to UNHCR. It is inhuman that these refugees, who fled persecution in Eritrea, should suffer further harassment and risk being blown up while clearing the mines. The Libyans do not want to do it themselves, so they use refugees.  This is barbaric and should be condemned. (Human Rights Concern – Eritrea).

The mine action community mobilized pretty rapidly after the fall of the Gaddhafi regime to provide mine risk education and demining services in Libya.  On the ground are several operators and significant funding was provided at the outset by donor states (although much of that funding was specifically geared towards preventing the proliferation of shoulder-fired surface to air rockets).  As such, this report seemed pretty incredible and I have not yet been able to locate any corroboration.  However, it does – unfortunately – fit into a much broader pattern of behavior in North Africa towards Sub-Saharan Africans.  It is also not the first report of people being forced to clear mines without proper training and support.

Prior to the revolution in Libya, as many as 2 million of Libya’s 7 million residents were foreign-born immigrants, some from Arab states, but many if not most from Sub-Saharan Africa.  Gaddhafi presented himself as leader of the pan-African movement and trained separatists and rebels from many countries including the Toureg who have recently been fighting against the Malian government and the convicted war criminal Charles Taylor and his allies in Liberia.  Gaddhafi also invited many black Africans to work in the Libyan oil fields where lucrative jobs were available and workers were able to earn enough to send remittances home to support families and communities.  In a billboard in Tripoli, “Colonel Qaddafi appears as a savior as sun rays break over his shoulder and a crowd of black men and women reach toward him with outstretched arms.” Native Libyans were angered by these acts and resented the presence of what they believed were “illegal” immigrants in their country.  In 2000 pogroms in Libya led to the deaths of many black Africans at the hands of native Libyans, attacks that were repeated in 2004, 2006 and 2008.  Against that backdrop, Gaddhafi’s use of African mercenaries to try and hold onto power in 2011 was an invitation for abuse.

Reports of Africans being held by Libyan rebels in detention camps abounded.  According to the US State Department African refugees in Libya faced killings, arbitrary detention, attacks on camps, and gender-based violence.  The State Department also reported on the presence of a camp at al-Kufrah where migrants faced physical abuse in addition to needing humanitarian assistance; a camp that Human Rights Concern – Eritrea also mentions as holding 300 Eritrean refugees.  Because Gaddhafi used African mercenaries, mostly from Chad, Niger and Mali, to protect his regime, all Africans in Libya after the 2011 revolution were subject to suspicion, detention and deportation, along with a host of abuses throughout.  Since the revolution, the new government has not taken steps to protect immigrants or refugees and human trafficking routes for forced labor and forced prostitution have returned.

The divide between North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans and the racism of North Africans towards Sub-Saharan Africans has been well documented (see Think Africa Press’s pieces here and here and UN Watch’s piece here).  In the United States, the dichotomy came to the forefront in discussions about Darfur where the Arabized militias of the janjaweed would attack the black Darfurians as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.  This simplistic and reductive argument paralleled the narrative about the Sudanese civil war between Sudan and South Sudan where the Arabs of Khartoum fought the Christians and animists of the South to maintain control over the oil reserves.  Again, a too-pat description, but one that was easy for Americans to understand and had a strong basis in the racism of North Africans and Arabs towards Sub-Saharan Africans.

It is very possible that Eritrean refugees are subjected to forced labor in the new Libya.  Many Eritreans have suffered greatly in their attempts to flee their country (in recent months, two Eritrean pilots defected to Saudi Arabia with the Eritrean President’s official plane; a third pilot sent to retrieve the plane from Saudi Arabia defected herself [Think Africa Press]; in 2009, 2011 and 2012 members of the Eritrean national football team sought asylum during regional tournaments [Sudan Tribune]) paying huge ransoms to human smugglers to avoid the country’s mandatory military service.  Traffickers take advantage of those wanting to flee Eritrea and have basically sold them into slavery in places like Libya.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea’s report would also not be the first report of people being forced to demine fields with little or no protection.  In Burma, the practice of “atrocity demining” has been reported by Human Rights Watch.  Atrocity demining, or “human mine sweeping,” is the “forced passage of civilians over confirmed or suspected mined areas or the forced use of civilians to clear mines without appropriate training or equipment.” It is a war crime and survivors of the practice in Burma were “forced them to dig out landmines, to strike or beat the ground with a pitchfork or pickaxe before [Burmese] soldiers walked on it, or to walk in front of Tatmadaw columns in a mined area or in an area suspected to have been mined.”

At its very root, the HRC-E report shows how marginalized persons suffer greater risks and abuses during and immediately after conflict.  Those risks are magnified when combined with racism and discrimination and can constitute war crimes when in the presence of landmines.

Michael P. Moore

April 10, 2013