By Laurent Robert et co.
The ICRC’s Weapon Contamination (WeC) Unit provides crucial assistance in areas where explosive weapons pose a significant threat. Conducting clearance activities in Yemen, providing risk awareness in Nigeria, training in responding to CBRN hazards and improving medical response to accidents resulting from explosive ordnance assessments or disposals are just some of the main tasks of the ICRC and its WeC Unit.
The ICRC is an independent humanitarian organization dedicated to protecting the lives and dignity of people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. Its mission is to assist victims and alleviate human suffering. This goal is shared by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which comprises National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in nearly every country worldwide. As part of its mandate, the ICRC has the expertise to identify and evaluate the consequences of explosive weapons and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and hazards. The efforts of the ICRC and National Societies will often help national or local authorities plan and prioritize their response to weapon contamination.
The Weapon Contamination Unit
The ICRC’s Weapon Contamination Unit supports efforts to provide emergency assistance such as food, water, health and other essential services in contexts where explosive weapons pose a significant threat. These include the risks posed by artillery shelling, bombs, landmines, cluster munition bomblets and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) which can have indiscriminate effects and cause harm during conflict and after the hostilities have ended. The WeC Unit also addresses CBRN risks and those posed by Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) that could result, for example, from a toxic industrial chemical leak incident. In addition to causing extensive death and injury, the use and presence of these weapons can disrupt essential services necessary for survival, such as access to healthcare facilities, agricultural activities, and the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
The preventive weapon-contamination activities carried out by the ICRC are based on three-fold institutional objectives:
- reducing the consequences of weapon contamination and CBRN hazards on the civilian population,
- ensuring staff safety for ICRC personnel and to some extent for National Societies’ staff members and volunteers,
- enabling humanitarian operations conducted under the lead of the ICRC.
Raising awareness and promoting safer behavior
An essential part of ICRC’s humanitarian efforts to reduce the impact of weapon contamination is to work with communities and train ICRC and Red Cross Red Crescent staff to help them better understand the risks they face regarding mines, ERW and CBRN hazards and to reduce their vulnerability by promoting safer behavior. To achieve these objectives, the ICRC often harnesses the grassroots networks of National Societies. Their proximity to and knowledge of the affected communities offer a valuable insight into potentially risky behavior and the most effective ways to raise awareness.
Mitigating the dangers faced by civilian communities
People’s access to essential services and livelihoods might be obstructed by the presence of landmines, ERW or CBRN hazards.
The ICRC prioritizes mobilizing national authorities and helping them strengthen their ability to undertake humanitarian mine and ERW clearance and risk reduction measures in accordance with international standards. The ICRC itself will engage in such activities if certain conditions are met and a specific added value for its involvement is identified, such as when the ICRC has sole access to an area where weapon contamination has a humanitarian impact on nearby communities. The ICRC has the capacity to:
- conduct explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), which includes the survey, marking, detection, identification, evaluation, safe removal and/or disposal of explosive ordnance, and
- conduct CBRN reconnaissance and assessment, and implement a risk mitigation response.
In Yemen, due to the extensive contamination, explosive threats often restrict access to farmlands, key access roads leading to markets, as well as essential services linked to livelihood activities. Yemen has a population highly dependent on agricultural activities, hence, the WeC activities in Yemen focus on countering the effects of ERW on both human life and their economic security, working towards restoring and protecting the livelihood activities of populations living in contaminated areas. By providing survey and clearance solutions, the ICRC can support the communities to bounce back from rural poverty and allow them to re-use newly cleared agricultural lands. Facilitating the access to farmland and engaging in the clearance and rehabilitation of essential water networks becomes an essential building block in a delicate peace-transitioning environment. Among other factors, explosive contamination has severely affected the production capacities of rural households; farmland and access roads are contaminated, leading to subsequent loss of productive land, and livestock keepers are losing animals due to explosive contamination.
Ensuring the safety and security of operations and staff
WeC specialists use their expertise to assist with staff safety training and contribute to ICRC activities carried out on behalf of people entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists get involved in explosive ordnance activities, including identifying and managing risks posed by explosive hazards. CBRN specialists assess risk related to CBRN or HAZMAT releases and advise on appropriate detection, protection and decontamination procedures. They contribute to safeguarding ICRC and National Society staff, as part of the organization’s duty of care processes, and to maintaining the safe continuity of its operations in situations where ERW and CBRN hazards pose a risk.
Improving the medical response
The ICRC also works to mitigate the dangers to a medical response in the event of an incident.
The Blast Trauma Care (BTC) course is specifically designed to equip EOD staff and healthcare workers supporting them with the necessary skills to manage casualties resulting from explosive ordnance assessments or disposals. Given the life-threatening consequences of accidental explosions, providing appropriate first aid is critical to increasing survival rates. In addition to addressing the needs of first responders to explosions, WeC also works to improve the medical capacities of agencies involved in explosive ordnance disposal operations on an organizational level.
In some countries, ICRC collaborates with authorities responsible for responding to CBRN or HAZMAT events to promote and develop best practices for the safe management of contaminated victims. By doing so, its aim is to equip the authorities and their agencies with the necessary tools to respond to such incidents in a timely and effective manner, while minimizing the risks to healthcare staff and facilities.
Fostering respect for the law
As part of its mandate to promote respect for international humanitarian law, the ICRC endeavors to:
- Remind authorities of their obligations under international humanitarian law prior to, during and after armed conflict,
- Promote adherence to the international norms governing conventional and non-conventional weapons, such as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on Conventional Weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Chemical Weapons Convention,
- Foster compliance with these treaties, including by reminding authorities of their obligations under these treaties and providing technical support to further implementation,
- Engage in dialogue with authorities if weapons are used in a way that is likely to have a negative impact on civilians.
In line with the three institutional imperatives identified above – assistance to vulnerable people, staff safety and operational continuity – the ICRC undertakes or facilitates a range of activities to mitigate the risk of weapon contamination and build resilience among civilians and other actors in affected contexts.
Recognizing that there is no universal solution to the problem of weapon contamination, the ICRC tailors its responses to the specific context and collaborates with Movement partners whenever feasible.
Laurent Robert, CBRN Adviser, ICRC Weapon Contamination Unit
Louis Maresca, Deputy Head, ICRC Weapon Contamination Unit
Katrine Finsnes, Medical Adviser, ICRC Weapon Contamination Unit
Marie-Sophie Villin, Associate, ICRC Weapon Contamination Unit
Maya Ordaz, Coordinator, ICRC Weapon Contamination Unit
Jason Straziuso, Editor, ICRC Communications Unit