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

Unnecessary Risks

One of the main goals of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was to stigmatize the use of these weapons so that even states that are not parties to the treaties would be reluctant to use them.  In Libya, when forces loyal to Gaddhafi used cluster munitions, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton referred to that use as “inhumanity” despite the fact that the United States has refused to sign the CCM (Arms Control Association).  So when Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the use of cluster munitions by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, it was international news (Huffington Post).  I heard the report about Syria’s use of cluster munitions during a news blurb on NPR during rush hour, and the reason it was news because of the strength of the stigma.

Part of the reason I started this blog was the birth of my daughter and the realization that many, many fathers in the world would have fears for their daughters that I would never have, including a fear of landmines.  It is to one of those fathers I wish to speak to now.  Specifically to the father of this little girl, who is almost the same age as my own:

You did not need to take this photo.  We know that Assad has attacked his own people, that he has used indiscriminate weapons, that he has put children in extreme danger.

But Assad did not put that bomb in your daughter’s hands.  You did.  You have put your own child in greater danger than the dictator you wish to defame had done, and you did it deliberately.  By trying to shame Assad, you have brought greater shame upon yourself.  These photos are not necessary and expose your children to horrific harm.   You have failed in your most basic duty as a father, to protect your daughter from harm.  Do not make this mistake again.  And to every other father, learn from this.  Your responsibility is to your children.  Protect them and do not endanger them like this.

Michael P. Moore, October 20, 2012

Keeps People Out, Keeps People In: Landmines in Mali and Syria

In most places landmines serve, in the particular military parlance, as area denial weapons: they are intended to prevent the entry or use of space by opponents.  Landmines can be laid to establish defensive perimeters, reinforce borders or slow advances.  In some instances, landmines have become weapons of terror; placed randomly they maim and kill passers-by who may have no military affiliations.  There is, however, an even more insidious use for mines: to keep people in areas and prevent their fleeing.

Perhaps the most famous extant minefield is the one in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.  South Korea and the United States may claim that the minefield in the DMZ (which has had the absurd consequence of becoming a pristine nature preserve) prevents the invasion of South Korea by the million-person strong army of North Korea.  However, equally important is the fact that the minefield prevents North Koreans from defecting to South Korea.  In this regard, the minefield serves North Korea in much the same way that the Berlin Wall served the former East Germany: it prevented dissidents from fleeing the oppressive regimes. Behind the DMZ minefield millions starve with little hope of escape.  The Wall and the minefield may have started their existence as defensive structures but over time they became symbols of the regimes and demonstrated the control of the regimes over the lives of their people. 

The Korean minefield was not intended to keep North Koreans from defecting; that has merely become one of its many benefits to the North Korean regime.  However, in two on-going conflicts, landmines have been used to deliberately prevent people from leaving areas.

In Syria, Bashar Al Assad’s regime has been fighting against a persistent armed opposition in the country for well over a year.  Launched in conjunction with the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian governments, the Syrian uprising has been subject to a brutal crackdown with thousands of people killed.  In March of this year, the Assad regime began to lay landmines along the borders with Lebanon and Turkey to prevent opposition actors from traveling to the refugee camps established in those countries.  The Assad regime fears that the refugee camps could become bases for armed opposition activity.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, the Assad regime wants to control any news emerging from the country.  The Syrian government has presented the crackdown as a response to terrorism and labeled the opposition as “terrorists.”  By placing landmines along its borders, Syria prevents the release of any footage of protests or documentation of violence committed by the regime against the opposition.  According to reports, 100 to 200 people fled Syria every day this spring and a total of 30,000 Syrians were living in Turkish and Lebanese refugee camps, but the “numbers of refugees would probably be higher if it wasn’t so difficult to get across the border, because of the minefields and numbers of Syrian soldiers in the area” (Reuters; BBC News). 

In Mali, the recent uprisings in the north of the country by Tuareg rebels and by Islamists have upset the fragile democracy that existed in this Sahelian country.  Mali had long been an advocate for landmine control, calling for their ban in 1995 and putting in place national legislation criminalizing the possession, sale or use of anti-personnel mines in accordance with the Mine Ban Treaty (International Committee of the Red Cross).  Despite these efforts, the frequent uprisings by Tuareg rebels led to the continued presence and threat from landmines in the country with casualties from landmines reported in recent years (Mail and Guardian). 

The Tuareg people formed a substantial portion of Gaddhafi’s mercenary army in Libya and with the fall of the Gaddhafi regime, the Libyan trained and armed Tuaregs launched their latest uprising in northern Mali.  This uprising coincided with continued efforts by Al Qaeda-linked Islamists to gain and secure a foothold in the Sahel region.  In a February 2012 post I had explored the question of why landmines had not yet been used in northern Mali despite the likelihood of the Tuaregs and the Islamists possessing mines looted from Gaddhafi’s stockpiles.  In the post I suggested that as long as the rebels were mobile, landmines would not be tactically useful, but if the conflict ever got bogged down or if the rebels sought to establish a particular stronghold, then we would see landmines being used (Landmines in Africa). This past week, those predictions came true.

First, it is important to note that the Tuaregs, organized under the National Movement for the Liberation of Anzawad (MNLA), and the Islamists, affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and organized as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), are not allied with each other.  They have been linked in various press reports and have both been fighting against the Malian government, but they are independent and unaffiliated.  MUJAO are the ones accused – by the Tuaregs – of using landmines in northern Mali.

MUJAO have seized and occupy the historic city of Timbuktu, an Islamic center of learning and the heartland of the Tuareg people.  This occupation puts the Islamists and Tuaregs in direct opposition and the Islamists are trying to consolidate their hold over Timbuktu and surrounding villages in anticipation of an attack by Malian forces, Tuaregs or a ECOWAS-organized peace-making force.  The Islamists have started to destroy Islamic shrines and historic mosques in Timbuktu as they are seen as idolatrous under the harsh interpretation of Sharia law used by the Islamists.  The destruction of the mosques constitutes a war crime under the International Criminal Court. 

In addition to the destruction of the mosques (reminiscent of the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist temples in Afghanistan), the Islamists have surrounded the city of Gao with landmines.  Gao lies on the banks of the Niger River and with 90,000 residents is one of the largest cities in northern Mali.  The MNLA accuses the Islamists of planting the landmines to prevent the people of Gao.  The Islamists are accused of “using the population [of Gao] as hostages, as a human shield to protect itself from an MNLA counter-attack” (Al Arabiya; International Business Times).  If true, this would be another war crime perpetrated by the Islamists and an insidious and deliberate use of landmines against civilians.

Michael P. Moore, July 11, 2012