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Legacies of conflict: despite huge progress, the landmine crisis continues

A worker uses a metal detector to identify potential mines A worker uses a metal detector to identify potential mines
10 Feb
2021
The international effort to stem the landmine crisis has been a humanitarian success story. The 2019 casualty numbers, however, reveal there is work yet to be done

Signatories to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty – which earned the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize – are obligated to cease production and development; to destroy stockpiles within four years; and to clear areas contaminated with anti-personnel mines within ten years. Some 159 countries have completed the destruction of stockpiles and 33 are now considered to be landmine free. 

There’s still work to be done, however. Worldwide, 60 states are contaminated with landmines, 32 of which are signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty. Just six of these are on target to reach the 2025 deadline for full landmine clearance and seven have requested extensions. ICBL ambassador Margaret Arach Orech is urging states not to lose focus. ‘Every mine left in the ground, represents a human toll in lives and limbs lost,’ she says.

ICBL’s Landmine Monitor has collected data on the landmine crisis for the past 22 years. A record low number of casualties was recorded in 2013, largely owing to steep declines in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Colombia. ‘Prior to 2013, Cambodia recorded casualties in the thousands – numbers are now below 100,’ says Marion Loddo, Landmine Monitor editorial manager.

‘Another factor was that people living with these weapons became more aware of them,’ says Michael Boyce, global policy advisor at the Mines Advisory Group, a British charity that clears mines in more than 25 countries.

However, across the world, re-emerging, high-intensity conflicts have seen increased use of mines by non-state armed groups. ‘Since 2013, there has been a massive spike in the use of improvised anti-personnel mines in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, along with their emerging use in West Africa,’ says Boyce. This trend is reflected in the casualty numbers. The Landmine Monitor 2020 recorded 5,554 casualties in 2019. Although down from the 6,897 casualties of 2018, it’s 60 per cent higher than the low of 2013.

Yemen landmineA national army soldier removes mines planted by Al-Houthi militias in Taiz City, Yemen

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It’s easy for these numbers to cast a shadow over humanitarian efforts, but there have been successes. Since the Mine Ban Treaty came into effect, more than 55 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed. In 2019, 156 square kilometres of mined areas were cleared; more than 123,000 anti-personnel mines were discovered and destroyed; and despite ongoing conflict, teams in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen continued clearance operations. Innovation is also blossoming. Researchers at the American University of Beirut have developed a machine-learning method that helps decode metal detector sounds. Researchers at Binghamton University in New York have developed a detection method that uses unmanned aerial vehicles carrying thermal infrared sensors. Education programmes are also helping. Most casualties (80 per cent) are civilians; nearly half are children. ‘Children are prone to picking up explosive items and playing with them,’ says Loddo. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, unsurprisingly, presents a new challenge. Mine clearances in 2020 were temporarily suspended in many areas, including Zimbabwe, Western Sahara, Vietnam and Senegal. Risk education within communities had to transition to digital methods. Moreover, Covid-19 threatens the ongoing funding of clearance and education schemes. UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on 25 November 2020 that the UK’s foreign aid budget would be cut by a third.

The pandemic has also driven people into contaminated areas. ‘In Iraq, some displaced people became afraid they would catch Covid-19 if they stayed in crowded camps, so they chose to return home to heavily mined areas. In Southeast Asia, people who lost jobs in cities returned home to mined villages and farms,’ says Boyce. 

‘Often the rural poor and economically disadvantaged are at the greatest risk,’ adds Loddo. ‘This was true before the pandemic, and it remains true today.’ 

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