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How mine clearance became a humanitarian issue

Explosive weapons
International

The adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty or Ottawa Convention twenty-five years ago led to fewer mines in the ground. But now the weapons used by belligerents are changing, along with the nature of the threat, requiring mine clearance experts to take a new approach.

Jennifer works as a deminer for HI near Maracaibo, Colombia, her home village

Jennifer works as a deminer for HI near Maracaibo, Colombia, her home village | © Till Mayer/HI

A quarter of a century on, the treaty has made a real difference. Manufactured landmines, used, for example, by an army to “secure” a military base, are on their way to being eradicated. In the 2000s, there was a tenfold decrease in landmine casualties. A total of 164 States have now signed the Mine Ban Treaty and 94 States have destroyed more than 55 million mines. But mine clearance experts are now facing new kinds of contamination, mostly by improvised devices used as landmines, and explosive remnants of war.

Casualties on the rise again since 2015

Improvised devices are devious weapons and take a variety of forms. They can be concealed in soft toys or tin cans, and are equipped with unbelievably sophisticated trigger mechanisms, such as trip wires, motion sensors and pressure pads. Each homemade model is unique and designed to kill, maim and terrorise civilians.

Deployed extensively since the conflict in Syria and Iraq, where they are used to booby trap everything from living rooms to fridge doors and wells, improvised mines have forced mine clearance experts to reinvent the way they work.

Explosive remnants of war such as unexploded mortars, bombs and rockets - deadly legacy of the intensive use of explosive weapons in armed conflicts - pose another serious challenge to mine clearance experts. Mixed with rubble, they contaminate vast tracts of land in urban areas. Sometimes present in large numbers, they make the work of mine clearance experts much harder.

Since 2015, the number of people killed and injured by these weapons have risen again as belligerents change their practices. Improvised mines and explosive remnants now cause more than 50 percent of mine deaths and injuries. In 2020, more than 7,000 people were killed or maimed by mines.

Humanitarian mine clearance: demining for communities

Changing circumstances, characterised by long, asymmetrical conflicts and intensive use of explosive weapons, led to the emergence of a new form of non-military mine clearance: humanitarian mine clearance, which started to develop in the 1990.

The aim of military mine clearance is to clear roads and infrastructure of weapons. It does not take into account the needs of local people. In contrast, humanitarian mine clearance experts work with local communities. They decide together which infrastructure or places to clear first, such as land where villagers grow their food, a busy road, or a village square where people meet and talk every day. The goal is to clear essential areas fast, so community life can return to normal.

Contamination hinders the return of peace and development; when mines prevent fields from being farmed, markets from being held or people from travelling to the next village, they lock families into poverty, break social ties and raise tensions between communities. Including communities is crucial to prioritising the clearance of areas for immediate use and to rebuilding people’s lives.

Drones and Go-Pro cameras to address new threats

Faced with new types of contamination, humanitarian mine clearance organisations have developed innovative new technical solutions. HI was one of the first organisations to experiment with drones and to use them for its mine clearance operations. It also plans to equip its mine clearance experts with Go-Pro cameras to improve team safety and supervision. Since mine clearance experts are always remotely supervised, their colleagues will be able to use the new system to monitor and better direct and advise them live on screen for even safer, faster and more effective mine clearance.

Civilians are still the main victims of mines and explosive remnants. Children still represent more than 40% of civilian victims. And 60 countries and regions are still contaminated globally. This contamination poses a direct threat to millions of lives. It is a major obstacle to peace and growth. In Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it has reached levels never seen before by mine clearance experts.

Date published: 31/03/22

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