First line of defence for communities: teaching about mine risks

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Author: Tobias Kuhlmann
Date: September-November 2004
From: UN Chronicle(Vol. 41, Issue 3)
Publisher: United Nations Publications
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,621 words

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When Liz Bernstein was working in the late 1980s in the refugee camps in the border region between Thailand and Cambodia, she saw that people who went out to collect firewood often returned severely injured or did not come back alive. These were the effects of landmines-weapons whose cruel function is such that they cannot be seen until they explode. Since then, Ms. Bernstein and many others around the world have taken up the fight against landmines. Some 15 years later, this horror is still present; however, as of September 2004, 143 countries had formally committed themselves to eradicate it.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which Ms. Bernstein joined in its early stages after her experiences in the refugee camps, has played a major role in lobbying the world's nations. The result was the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, known as the Mine-Ban Convention, which entered into force in 1999. Liz Bernstein thinks, and it is widely held, that this treaty is a milestone in the fight against such a weapon.

Five years later, it is time for a comprehensive review of the Convention, to be held at the Nairobi Summit on a mine-free world from 29 November to 3 December 2004. "Tremendous progress has already been made in dealing with the anti-personnel mine problem, but it still has a long way to go--a lot of work still needs to be done. So Nairobi is intended really to relaunch the movement, to bring some fresh attention to it, to mobilize Governments and civil society, and to push towards finishing the job. Let's get rid of this weapon once and for all", said Martin Barber, Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) at a UN Headquarters press briefing in April.

Cambodia is still one of the areas in the world heavily contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance. However, according to UNMAS, the annual number of casualties from landmines there went down from roughly 3,046 in 1996 to approximately 745 in 2003, although a large proportion of the decrease is due to the end of fighting in the country. On a global scale, successes are similarly significant. While landmines in 1997 claimed an estimated 26,000 casualties each year, today they are down to between 15,000 and 20,000. "This is a substantial drop, but still too many people are killed. This needs to be brought to an end", Mr. Barber said.

Other indicators also show that during the five years after its entry into force, the Mine-Ban Convention has had significant effect: in 2003, according to the Landmine Monitor Report, which is published by a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and serves as a civil society-based verification of the treaty, no more than five countries were still using landmines, down from an estimated nineteen in 1997. The number of countries thought to be producing anti-personnel landmines dropped from 54 in the early 1990s to 15 in 2003, when over 30 million stockpiles had been destroyed by States Parties to the treaty; there is no more official trading in landmines.

"One of the problems of the Convention--which certainly is not a real problem--is its success. Because it is so successful, there are so many States Parties, and because we keep saying good things about it, people forget that there are things left to do", Jackie Seck Diouf of UNMAS told the UN Chronicle. Anti-personnel landmines are among those for which mistakes of the past cast their shadow on the present in many ways. While a stop in the production of landmines, the destruction of stockpiles and abolishment of trading are important achievements, vast areas are still affected by mines waiting to maim or kill whoever steps on them. All States signing the Mine-Ban Convention commit themselves to clearing their territory of landmines within ten years after the treaty enters into force. Yet, this reads more easily than can be done, as each State faces specific challenges in reaching this goal.

Eritrea, for example, is one of the ten poorest countries in the world and heavily affected by landmines. With the arrival of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) and the establishment of its Mine Action Coordination Center in 2000, there was an increase in humanitarian mine action, including support from a number of international NGOs and UN agencies. Andrea Poelling of the Coordination Center described to the UN Chronicle some of the everyday challenges that de-miners face. Even if mines or unexploded ordnance have been reported by people living in the area, for example, it is hard to actually locate them. "Often the geographical descriptions received from the local population are very vague and simplistic, which can make it extremely difficult for the explosive ordnance disposal field team to immediately find the unexploded ordnance or mine amidst a vast stretch of land." In order to succeed in finding the reported item, the team requires sufficient deployment time and has to demonstrate patience and endurance, Ms. Poelling said. "In most cases, the team will also have to travel through some very treacherous and rugged terrain to reach its destination."

Similar challenges to de-mining are faced by other countries as well. Thus, even if most States Parties to the Convention eventually fulfil their commitment of clearing their land of mines within the required time frame, which UNMAS is confident will be achieved, many will remain in the ground and thus pose a danger now and for some time to come to people living in the area. This is why de-mining is just one approach to dealing with the problem. "Mine-risk education is the first line of defence for communities that may still have a prolonged time to wait before their land is cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance", Lejla Susic of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Eritrea told the Chronicle. According to her, mine-risk education plays an essential role in educating communities, particularly children, about the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnance, and has reportedly contributed to a significant reduction in deaths and injuries.

The educational approach is being pursued in many different tracks: in Cambodia as in many other countries, according to Julien Temple of UNICEF, school children are warned, as part of the national curriculum, of the risks of mines. In addition, teachers in highly affected communities are encouraged to develop specific action, and teaching from child to child is promoted. However, not only children but also adults need to be addressed. This is often done in evening sessions: "You have an evening show with posters, animations with drama and television shows, whatever material you use, and the entire village takes part", Mr. Temple told the Chronicle. Furthermore, mine-risk education is increasingly being considered to be more effective if communities play a more important role and are mobilized to a greater extent.

As a result of the cooperation of stakeholders in mine action in Cambodia, a pilot project was established two years ago in highly affected communities to better involve them in developing and implementing risk-reduction strategies. This community-based mine-risk reduction project takes into account that various groups within specific communities may perceive the risks posed by landmines differently, and aims at balancing priorities and interests resulting from it. Furthermore, such education is more effective if better information about the victims is available. With the Mine Victim Information System, established in 1995 by the Red Cross with support from UNICEF, Cambodia has one of the most advanced and comprehensive systems in the world, according to Mr. Temple. "This Information System provides on a monthly basis all the accidents that happened, with the name, age and gender of the victim, location of the accident, type of mine or unexploded ordnance, and the activity of the victim at the time of the accident, so that it enables us to see patterns", he said. Groups that are at very high risk may be identified and their specific needs can then be addressed. Many people are reached this way. "The fundamental factor, however, still remains one of livelihood", the Landmine Monitor reported. Using the example of Cambodia, it said that "even if people are aware of the risk of undertaking a particular activity, they do not see any other alternative than to enter mined areas." This means that even as the de-mining and mine-risk education continue, new victims are still to be expected and the injured still have to live with their disabilities.

These are the problems for which the mistakes of the past cast their shadows most persistently on the present and the future. "There are way too many countries where people and communities affected by landmines cannot get sufficient assistance", Liz Bernstein told the Chronicle. Such assistance for victims involves emergency aid, prosthetic legs and other medical devices required for support through the survivors' entire lives; especially in economically weak countries, it is often a challenge to simply achieve that. However, as challenging as the fulfilment of these basic needs may be, victim assistance is even more complex than that, Mr. Temple said. "It may be easy to fit a prosthesis to someone who lost a leg-it's rather technical, and if the service is available, it's easily done, but it may be much more difficult to give work to a disabled person in a country like Cambodia. It may be much more difficult for someone who lost a leg to generate an income to feed his family." Therefore, victim assistance is closely related to the social and economic development of a society, and these aspects need to be approached in an integrated way, as stated by concerned UN agencies.

Anti-personnel landmines take individuals' lives and limbs, but they affect even more people and communities on a different level, as they are often an impediment to simply earning one's livelihood. In Cambodia, for example, according to UNMAS, after more than three decades of war, landmines and unexploded ordnance pose a barrier to agricultural land for the poor-close to half of all villages are affected. They constitute a daily threat to the lives of thousands of families and are a major obstacle to socio-economic development in former conflict areas. In Eritrea in September 2003, more than one third of its almost 3,500 communities were socially and economically affected by these weapons, according to a landmine-impact survey. Hardest hit are the rural population, nomadic people, internally displaced persons and refugees. Similarly, a strong impact on individuals and communities is to be found in many other countries. According to most observers, although much has been accomplished since the Mine-Ban Convention's entry into force, such as a decreased number of victims, clearance of large areas, and stockpile destruction of anti-personnel landmines, much remains to be done.

"Our message is that this problem can be solved. We can consign the anti-personnel landmine to the dustbin of history. It's an anomalous weapon and should be eliminated. Nairobi will be a success if it adopts practical action plans and if each mine-affected State Party comes to the conference with its own national plan on how to get rid of landmines in its territory in the required period of time", Mr. Barber of UNMAS said. Implementation will be most successful if these plans are incorporated into broader goals of social and economic development, as experiences have shown in de-mining, mine-risk education and victim assistance.

While roughly three fourths of all States are parties to the Convention, around one fourth is not, "and this includes big countries like the United States, China, the Russian Federation, India and Pakistan", Ms. Seck Diouf told the Chronicle. Another goal of the Nairobi Summit therefore is to universalize the treaty, aiming at getting new States Parties aboard before the beginning of the conference and even more within the years that follow. She hopes that the States participating in the conference will show the importance of the issue by being represented on the highest level.

With all the tangible achievements made thus far and still to be accomplished in light of new victims, severe socio-economic effects and the suffering of survivors, one accomplishment is less tangible yet no less important, Liz Bernstein told the Chronicle. "One of the first and foremost successes is the norm itself. A short time ago, it was a weapon widely used and, in very short time, in fact, we have established an international norm that it is just not acceptable to use antipersonnel landmines."

RELATED ARTICLE: Countries Most Affected by Anti-personnel Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance

While anti-personnel landmines are still taking lives and injuring people in many parts of the world, some countries are particularly affected by these weapons.

Afghanistan: The problem of mines and unexploded ordnance is a result of more than two decades of mine use by many armies and factions in Afghanistan. Nearly 25 years after their original deployment, these weapons continue to terrorize the Afghan people. According to the UN Electronic Mine Information Network (E-Mine), there are over 872 square kilometres of suspected mined land and an additional 450 sq. km. thought to be contaminated by unexploded ordnance. Up to five persons are killed or injured daily by these weapons. Furthermore, landmines constitute a structural impediment to the country's development. Afghanistan has been a State Party to the Mine-Ban Convention since 2002.

Angola: National capacity, particularly with regards to providing accurate information on the mine situation, remains limited, according to E-Mine. Mine contamination and the destruction of infrastructure resulting from the war in Angola continue to endanger lives, prevent economic recovery and impede the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance in most provinces. An estimated 70 per cent of returning refugees or internally displaced persons have resettled in areas where the preconditions on accessibility and a relatively low risk of mines have not been met. Throughout 2003, however, increased funding enabled the implementation of much needed surveys, mine clearance, demarcation and mine-awareness activities, as well as better quality control and coordination of mine-action activities, and supported institutional reform. Continuing support of the international community is needed. Angola has been a State Party since 2002.

Cambodia: It is among the countries most heavily contaminated by mines and unexploded ordinance as a result of numerous conflicts over the past thirty years. Close to half of all villages are affected, with a suspected contaminated area of 4,466 square kilometres; 745 casualties from these weapons were reported in 2003, a third of the victims were children in the countryside, especially in areas considered indispensable for the new settlement of poor people. This brings the total number of mine victims to an estimated 36,000. Cambodia has been a State Party since 1999.

Iraq: Data are not accurate and comprehensive but, according to E-Mine, Iraq might be the country in the world most affected by landmines, as well as by unexploded ordnance. Recent surveys indicate that extremely large quantities of explosive ordnance are scattered throughout major cities and villages, stemming from the recent and previous conflicts. In addition, minefields block grazing and agricultural land, water sources and community facilities, and create obstacles to the rehabilitation of infrastructure. Major minefield barriers exist along Iraq's borders with Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where clearance is complicated by a lack of minefield records and heavy contamination by unexploded ordnance. Victim data collected over a six-week period in mid-2003 show there were 324 casualties in four southern and 70 in three northern governorates. These extremely high figures are for less than 40 per cent of the country; therefore, if all areas were taken into account, the country might be the worst affected in the world. Iraq is not a State Party to the Mine-Ban Convention.

By Tobias Kuhlmann, for the Chronicle

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A125947177