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Briefing: Hundreds of landmine deaths and injuries each year despite ban

Photo of a de-mining technician in Sri Lanka with protective gear Russell Watkins/DFID
Sudarana, a 20 year-old Sri Lankan woman trained as de-mining technician by the UK charity HALO Trust at work in a paddy field near Thunukkai, northern Sri Lanka.

Angola announced this week that it has cleared landmines from more than 100,000 kilometres of road since the civil war ended in 2002. Even so, there have been 156 landmine-related deaths in the past two years – most of them children – and some 88,000 people are living with disabilities as a result of landmine injuries.

Angola is hardly alone. Although a global landmine ban went into effect in 1999, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor recorded more than 120,000 landmine deaths or injuries between then and 2017. The real number is likely higher as gathering reliable data is difficult in countries like Syria where conflict is ongoing.

Although some countries have managed to clear the deadly munitions from their land, others are struggling to remove them.

Thirty-two countries, including the United States, have yet to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, while Myanmar reportedly laid landmines as recently as 2018.

Read more → Landmines fuel exodus in Myanmar’s north

According to Myanmar’s Mine Risk Working Group, there were 276 deaths and injuries from landmines or other explosives last year – more than double the 112 recorded in 2015. Three police were killed and three others injured in a landmine blast just this week in the country’s Rakhine State.

How did we get here?

Landmines in their current form were invented during the American Civil War, and have been a common weapon in many of the conflicts that have followed. Designed to kill and maim enemies, they often kill or injure civilians, often long after they are laid and the conflict is officially over.

By 1997, when the Ottawa Convention – informally known as the “Mine Ban Treaty” – was opened for signatures, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated there were as many as 110 million landmines scattered across some 70 countries.

The treaty went into effect in 1999 and required that all signatories stop producing, buying, and selling landmines. It also called on countries to destroy stockpiles within four years and to fully de-mine within 10 years of becoming signatories.

Twenty-five countries have fully de-mined since the Ottawa Convention, according to the US-based Arms Control Association, and there are now 164 state parties to the treaty.

If they are banned, why are landmines still an issue?

Many countries still have mines left over from conflicts that took place before the Mine Ban Treaty went into effect. These remaining mines are part of a broader category of weapons known as explosive remnants of war (ERWs).

In Zimbabwe, for instance, more than 61 million square metres of land is still contaminated with landmines 40 years after the colonial government laid them during the struggle for independence.

Landmines not only pose a threat to people, but also to local and national economies. Livestock are also vulnerable to mines, and contaminated land cannot be used for farming.

Which countries are still affected by landmines?

As of last year, 58 countries were still contaminated with landmines, according to the Mine Action Review.

Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, and Iraq have the heaviest mine contamination. In Cambodia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, most of the mine contamination is due to ERWs. Colombia, too, is heavily contaminated.

Although Iraq and Afghanistan have ERW contamination, they also face contamination from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) left by non-state actors like the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.

In Afghanistan, IEDs now pose a greater threat than explosive remnants from previous conflicts.

What about IEDs?

While landmines may be outlawed, IEDs continue to be used in conflict – often by non-state actors in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen.

In 2017, the most recent year for which full data is available, IEDs caused the most casualties of any mine type. Afghanistan saw more than 1,000 deaths or injuries from IEDs – the highest toll in the world that year. The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor found that 88 percent of those killed or maimed by IEDs were civilians.

For organisations trying to keep track of landmines, IEDs can be particularly tricky. Reliable data can be hard to gather from active conflict zones, and IED incidents often go unrecorded.

Which countries are still producing and laying mines?

Four countries – India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and South Korea – are believed to still be actively producing landmines, according to the Landmine Cluster and Munition Monitor.

However, according to The Monitor, 11 countries – China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam – maintain the right to produce landmines.

In addition to Myanmar, governmental use of landmines has also been recorded in recent years in Libya and Syria.

In 2014, president Barack Obama’s administration announced that the United States would not use landmines – apart from on the Korean peninsula – and would destroy some of its stockpile.

In 2018, following a slight reduction in tensions between North and South Korea, the two countries began removing some landmines in the demilitarised zone. Seoul and Pyongyang combined have laid somewhere between 1.8 and 2.2 million landmines.

So what is being done?

Global demining efforts are ongoing. In 2014, the signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty agreed to complete their mine clearance by 2025.

Progress is being made. Funding for demining efforts has been steady since 8,600 landmine-related deaths or injuries were recorded in 2016.

The UN Mine Action Service, which has been operational since 1997, also supported 18 programmes around the world in 2018 that cleared some 144 square kilometres of land.

Although 25 countries have already successfully demined, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines says only four countries are likely to make their demining deadlines.

Sixty-five percent of funding in 2017 went to just five countries – Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Laos, and Syria. Earlier this summer, Angola announced that it needed more than $300 million to stay on track to demine by its 2025 deadline.

In many countries, mine casualties are falling. Colombia, the most heavily mined country in the western hemisphere, recorded only 50 deaths and injuries in 2017, down from more than 1,200 in 2006. Still, it is not on track to meet its own 2021 deadline.

Demining efforts are still heavily reliant on people to find and remove landmines (however, a robot developed by a young Canadian engineer might soon enter the fray). Organisations like the HALO Trust train, equip, and pay local people to demine safely. In Angola, for example, HALO runs a project to train women how to demine.

Still, the nature of the work is slow going, and a mine-free world is still a long way off despite the international deadlines.

(TOP PHOTO: Sudarana, a 20 year-old Sri Lankan woman trained as de-mining technician by the UK charity HALO Trust at work in a paddy field near Thunukkai, northern Sri Lanka.)


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