Landmines: where next?
by Rae McGrath January 2001

Baliet, a remote jungle town of mud huts in the Upper Nile region of southern Sudan, clings to the edge of the Sobat River. Approaching from the west, several hours after leaving the White Nile near the northern end of the Jonglei Canal, the first indication that the settlement exists are the dugout canoes pulled up on the bank. Before the civil war, the town could be reached by road, but that route has been overgrown for years and is believed, with justification, to be mined.

With a small team from the Sudan Campaign to Ban Landmines (SCBL) and Oxfam, I visited Baliet as part of an initiative to evaluate the scale of landmine problems in Sudan. During the days we spent in the town I was struck, not just by the plight of this war-damaged community, but by the minimal impact which the activities of the international landmines campaign and the Ottawa Convention have had on the desperate lives of people in such situations. It is, perhaps, fair to argue that, were it not for the increased international concern, no funding would have been available for our mission, but it would be hard to find any greater impact. The people of Baliet were unaware that the international community had pledged to eradicate landmines and, even had the ban on anti-personnel mines (APM) pre-dated the battles which made their land so dangerous and had the warring parties observed the convention’s requirements, it would have changed little.

Baliet itself, surrounded by APM minefields, stands within an anti-tank minefield, a type of landmine prohibited under the terms of the Ottawa treaty. Considerations such as these are academic, regardless of whether the parties to the Sudan conflict stop using landmines; Baliet is already mined. There are surgical and prosthetic facilities capable of treating survivors of landmine incidents in Sudan; but it is unlikely that any victims in Baliet would survive evacuation by river, even in the unlikely event that a suitable craft could be found. Southern Sudan is ravaged by war which, despite the fact that Baliet has seen no combat for some years, ensures that no international effort to clear the mines there will be undertaken in the foreseeable future. This is not as straightforward as it may seem since a number of communities in areas of southern Sudan controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) are benefiting from internationally-funded mine clearance initiatives. Baliet, in government-held territory, would not be considered for such action by any of the major international donors because they deem the Khartoum regime to be beyond the political and human-rights pale – a fact which the people of Baliet could hardly influence.

I chose Baliet as an example, not because it is extraordinary, but because it represents the norm in southern Sudan, and in many other countries. While such communities are not symptomatic of the failure of the landmine campaign and the international response to landmines, they are a clear illustration of how far we are from reaching our goals. This does not mean, as critics have concluded, that we have failed. It is, however, cold comfort to accept that the international campaign has not resulted in a realistic scale of engineering or victim-support response in mine-affected countries.

The reasons are comparatively straightforward: insufficient funds have been committed, and responses are tied to the political agendas of the major donor governments. If the latter reason is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the over-lapping priorities of major donors in conflict areas, it is certainly not a situation that should be accepted. If civil society could influence, motivate and bully governments into embracing a fast-track treaty to ban APM, why stop there?

When politicians and civil servants are challenged to respond to the charge that mine action is critically under-funded, they invariably reply by listing how much their respective governments have given, rather than explaining why sufficient funds have not been made available. This argument could be paraphrased thus: ‘we have allocated a lot of money to mine action – surely a lot is enough’. In Kosovo, where there was a political incentive, ‘a lot’ may indeed be sufficient. In most other mined countries, where the only incentive is human suffering, ‘a lot’ has proved to be inadequate. It cannot be reasonably refuted that other sectors of humanitarian and developmental response require equally urgent and necessary funding. That being the case, it is surprising that no government, among the many who have expressed dismay and concern about the impact of landmines, has adopted the available and just option – pledging funds from the military budget specifically to clear land-mines and unexploded ordnance, and to evacuate and treat mine victims.

How unreasonable is this option?

This option would find little support in defence ministries and military hierarchies. Governments could justifiably respond to this opposition by saying that ‘a lot’ in terms of military spending must be ‘enough’, in other words, choosing the brave option of placing the positive above the negative – favouring the priorities of life today over the projected costs of conflict tomorrow. This is not as revolutionary a proposal as it may seem. Even a cursory comparison of the costs of military equipment with the budgets currently allotted for humanitarian demining reveals that the military would lose little in real terms, while mine-action programmes would benefit dramatically. Nor would this be an unfair contribution by the many countries whose armed forces have benefited from ‘cost-free’ training in mine clearance in some of the world’s worst-affected countries.

For these arguments even to be considered, political pressure must be brought to bear; civil society must again engage government in order to release the level of funding required to eradicate the landmines already in the ground. The landmines campaign is not doing enough in this regard. This may seem a surprising admission from an active member of the campaign, but I am not alone among campaigners in the belief that we must rediscover our radical edge and, once again, put landmines on the political agenda, to make governments’ failure to respond cost votes. The hundreds of organisations who make up the international campaign need to become active again on the landmines issue, because without their outspoken commitment, the campaign is toothless, and the ideals to which we publicly aspired during the last decade of the twentieth century will prove to have been little more than rhetoric. The arguments expressed by some organisations that they can only be ‘active’ on a single issue, and that they have now ‘moved on’ from the landmines campaign, are not sustainable when almost none of the original objectives of the international campaign have been achieved.

When the landmines campaign accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, its members expressed the sentiment that the eradication of landmines was an opportunity to ‘leave the world a better place’ for future generations. Eliminating mines is an achievable objective and an engineering possibility, but any neutral audit of our progress would conclude that we are failing, that we are throwing away a rare opportunity to prove ourselves capable of caring for humanity and our environment in a world dominated by the evidence of our capacity for destruction. If that happens, it will not be the sole responsibility of governments, arms manufacturers and combatants; the landmines campaign, and its member organ-isations, will share culpability on the grounds that, while we achieved a lot, we did not achieve enough.

Rae McGrath is a partner in Bridge Initiatives, a post-conflict response consultancy, and Technical Advisor to Landmine Action, the UK campaign against landmines. He can be contacted by e-mail at raemcgrath@hotmail.com, or by writing to Bridge Initiatives, Carlisle Enterprise Centre, James Street, Carlisle CA2 5BB, UK.

Resources

The full text of the Ottawa Treaty is available at <www.armscontrol.org>

Chris Horwood, Humanitarian Mine Action: The First Decade of a New Sector, Network Paper 32 (London: Humanitarian Practice Network, 2000)

Rae McGrath, Landmines: Legacy of Conflict (Oxford: Oxfam, 1994)

Rae McGrath, A Wasteland Called Peace, discussion paper for the UK Campaign for a Transparent and Accountable Arms Trade, 1999

Rae McGrath, Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance: A Resource Book (London: Pluto Press, 2000)

Niland Eaton and Chris Horwood, The Development of Indigenous Mine Action Capacities (New York: United Nations/DHA, 1998)

Office of Humanitarian De-mining Programs, Hidden Killers: The Global Landmine Crisis (Washington DC: US State Department, 1998)

United Nations Mine Action Service, Mine Action and Effective Coordination: The United Nations Policy (New York: United Nations, 1998)

Landmine Action <www.landmineaction.org>

Mines Action Canada <www.minesactioncanada.com>

International Campaign to Ban Landmines <www.icbl.org>

German Initiative to Ban Landmines <www.landmine.de>

Handicap International <www.handicap-international.org/presentation/icbl>

ICRC <www.icrc.org/eng/mines>

James Madison University Humanitarian De-mining Centre <www.hdic.jmu.edu>

Mines Advisory Group <www.mag.org.uk>

United Nations Landmine Resource Centre <www.un.org/Depts/Landmine>

 

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