Today marks the fifteenth International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. The day was initiated by the UN in 2005 with the goal of limiting states’ landmine capacities, particularly in countries where remnants of mines or live mines used in ongoing conflicts cause a serious threat to the safety and lives of civilians.
Despite the widely commemorated day, and the UN convention that preceded it, landmines still killed and injured 120,000 people between 1999-2017, with civilians making up a staggering 87% of casualties. In 2018, nearly 7,000 people were killed and injured globally, over half of whom were children.
Negotiations for the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction began in Oslo on 1 September 1997. The final convention, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, became effective in 1999. To date 164 states have formally signed up to the agreement, but how many have upheld their pledge?
A Reliefweb report on explosive violence suggests that 2% of civilian casualties around the world in February 2020 were caused by landmines.
With an increasing number of states signed up to the treaty, the number of casualties should have subsequently decreased. But being party to the treaty does not seem to stop countries from still having landmines. There are said to currently be around 60 countries around the world today, that are still contaminated with unexploded landmines; often perilous remnants of past conflicts in countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Furthermore, at least 11 countries are considered to have “massive contamination”, meaning a surface area of mines spanning more than 100km2.
Landmines around the world today
Although the use of landmines seems to be decreasing overall, some countries, particularly those that have not signed up to the treaty, are still proliferating these types of weapons. In January this year, U.S President Donald Trump lifted previous restrictions on the deployment of anti-personnel landmines by American forces. His decision to do this reversed a 2014 agreement signed by then President Obama, that put a ban on these weapons. The United States is not and has never been a signatory to the mine ban treaty.
Syria is another state that has also never been a signatory of the convention and has shown ‘little interest’ in doing so. However, the protracted conflict has seen the use of landmines and homemade landmines. Between October 21, 2017 and January 20, 2018, mines injured at least 491 people, including 157 children, many of whom died. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the anti-personnel mines had been planted by I.S militants when they controlled the city of Raqqa. Syria is not known to produce or export anti-personnel mines, but has held the same position on the ban treaty for years without change. Syria’s general position being,
‘it is concerned with the plight of mine victims, but views antipersonnel mines as necessary weapons.’
Yemen signed up to the treaty in 1999 and in accordance with Article 5 of the Convention, started to ‘destroy or ensure the destruction of all anti-personnel mines’ as soon as possible, but agreed to a deadline of destruction no later than 1 March 2009.However, that deadline has now been extended by request three times, with the latest request to extend the deadline on 28 March 2019 being granted at the Fourth Review Conference of the State Parties Oslo.
According to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Yemen is reported to have destroyed its landmine stockpile of 78,000 devices. However, the country remains one of the 11 that still have ‘massive’ levels of mine contamination.
In April 2019 Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that landmine use by the Houthi rebel group had become widespread in the conflict and had killed and injured hundreds of people in Yemen. The use of mines exacerbated already existing humanitarian issues, as they prevented aid groups reaching vulnerable communities. HRW figures estimated that more than 9,000 Yemeni civilians were killed or injured by Houthi landmines; many victims were children.
“Human Rights Watch found evidence that in addition to laying anti-personnel landmines, Houthi forces planted anti-vehicle mines in civilian areas, modified anti-vehicle mines to detonate from a person’s weight, and disguised improvised explosive devices as rocks or parts of tree trunks.”
Worldwide Ceasefire and the end of landmine use?
A recent UN ceasefire was called in light of the coronavirus pandemic in order to enable countries in conflict a moment to re-stabilise while dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Yemen Envoy, called upon warring parties to convene an urgent meeting that started on 2 April.
“I am calling the parties to an urgent meeting to discuss how to translate their stated commitments to the Yemeni people into practice. I expect the parties to heed Yemen’s desire for peace and immediately cease all military hostilities,”
International support came from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who echoed support for the easing of tensions between the parties, and the talks continued on 3 April. The talks concluded with Griffiths opening four internationally sponsored “fronts” through which he hopes to resolve the conflict. The four fronts are:
“a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures to alleviate the suffering of Yemenis, a speedy resumption of the political process and fostering joint efforts to fight the threat posed by the new coronavirus pandemic.”
Griffiths hoped that the consultations had met their successful conclusion and that they “deliver what Yemenis expect, demand and deserve,”
Nevertheless, despite external efforts to clean-up remaining mines, there are still many that remain, endangering the lives of civilians, not just in Yemen, but landmines still kill and maim thousands of innocent people worldwide. They are particularly callous instruments of war; indiscriminate and inhumane, and therefore by very definition violate fundamental aspects of international humanitarian law. If states would at the very least honour their obligations to the convention, then finally we may not have to mark this international day at all.