By Zsofia Baumann, NCT Consultants
Recent reports on Russia’s use of landmines in Ukraine have drawn attention to the lasting effects of explosive remnants of war (ERWs) following the end of a conflict. Over a quarter of Ukraine’s territory is currently contaminated with landmines, leaving the area inaccessible for not just agricultural and industrial use, but simply to return to. However, outside of Ukraine there are over 60 countries who face the same problem, with hundreds of thousands of km2 of territory scattered with these deadly weapons.
Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen in the Middle East, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cyprus in Europe, Angola, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa and Afghanistan, Myanmar and Cambodia in Asia – these are just a few countries that are still experiencing the results of years of conflict: mine contamination. It is estimated by the 2022 Landmine Monitor Report, compiled by the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), that as of 2022, over 60 countries and territories remain contaminated, with an estimated 110 million landmines in the ground.
Landmines and other ERWs remain a security risk long after conflicts have ended and can cause serious bodily harm or death decades after they have been placed. According to most recent estimates by the 2022 Landmine Monitor Report, in 2021 casualties of mines were identified in 50 countries, killing 2 182 people and injuring 3 355. More than three quarters of these were civilians (4 200), almost half of which were children (1 696).
Scope of the problem
Landmines are not the only ‘leftovers’ of conflict that can cause serious bodily harm or damage. Along with landmines, other unexploded or abandoned ordnances, as well as improvised explosive devices are scattered in areas where civilians can easily become victims.
Under landmines, most commonly we refer to anti-personnel (AP) landmines, which are designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact with a person and are intended to harm or kill people. Most commonly they are detonated by being stepped on or via a tripwire but can also be set off by the passage of time or via control. On the other hand, anti-vehicle (AV) landmines are meant to damage or destroy vehicles and therefore require a greater weight or pressure to be set off.
Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are unitions that have been fired, launched, dropped, etc., but failed to detonate. These include artillery, tank rounds, mortar rounds, fuses, grenades and bombs of different sizes, such as cluster munitions, submunitions, rockets and missiles. UXOs are different from abandoned ordnance, which is simply ordnance that has not been used and left behind following a conflict and that is now not under the control of any particular armed force. Together unexploded and abandoned ordnance is referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERWs).
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are manually placed, usually homemade devices that have been adapted to kill, injure or damage property when come into contact with. Often UXOs or abandoned ordnance can be modified or used to build IEDs. IEDs are somewhat similar to booby traps in that both are deliberately placed to cause injury or damage, often seem harmless (disguised as a commonly used object or even a toy) and are most commonly activated by the victim, who are often civilians, including children. The only difference is that while IEDs, also referred to as improvised mines, are always explosive, bobby traps can be non-explosive as well. IEDs can be easily assembled, their parts are widely available, they are easily dispersed and quickly deployed, making them an attractive weapon for insurgencies and other asymmetric warfare. Some types, such as the so-called ‘butterfly mines’ can cause injury with only a very small amount of explosive and are detonated by as little as 5 kg of pressure, clearly targeting civilians, and more specifically children.
Though the use of landmines has come to the foreground due to the war in Ukraine, it is far from the most contaminated country in the world. Egypt, Angola, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, China and Cambodia have over 10 million ERWs in their ground, with the first three accounting for over 85% of total number of mine-related casualties worldwide each year, according to statistics by landminefree.org. In the Middle East, one of the most contaminated regions, there are 15 countries that are affected by either antipersonnel mines or other ERWs, Egypt being the most densely contaminated with over 21 million ERWs (out of which 20-25% are mines), mostly in its border regions, dating back to World War II, but including ERWs left behind due to the wars with neighboring Israel.
Iraq is the world’s most contaminated country by the total extent of contaminated area, as a result of the Iraq-Iran war between 1980-1988, the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 US invasion. The Islamic State’s occupation of certain parts of the country added to the problem, which also added cluster munition remnants, improvised mines and other IEDs to the list. However, Afghanistan and Yemen also have over 100km2 contaminated area, as a result of both legacy contamination (left behind by past wars) and new contamination (from on-going conflicts).
The long-term effects of landmines
Apart from the obvious safety and security concerns, the death and injuries they cause, the presence of landmines in an area can have a multitude of other long-lasting effects. From restricting access to areas that could be used for agriculture or communal use, such as tourism, to blocking humanitarian aid or the return of refugees and wildlife conservation, ERWs cause suffering and damage for decades after they are laid.
Landmines and IEDs can be deployed as area denial weapons, restricting, or blocking entirely, access to a territory. They are often planted in areas used for agriculture, fields, forests, around water sources, such as wells, hydroelectric installations, making these impossible or dangerous to use. The inability to use these areas can have a serious strain on the country’s economy, especially during the phase of post-conflict reconstruction. According to landminefree.org, Cambodia and Afghanistan could double their agricultural production, if their territories were decontaminated.
Aside from agricultural production, contaminated areas cannot be used for communal use either. In Egypt, one of the most contaminated countries, development projects in the Sinai Peninsula have been halted due to the presence of landmines. The area is rich in oil and minerals, the excavation of which is also hampered by mines left behind during the wars between Egypt in Israel in 1956 and 1973. On the other side of the country, on the coast of the Mediterranean, World War II mines scattered during the battles between European powers left the seaside contaminated, blocking access for development for tourism.
In countries suffering from long lasting conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Iraq, mine contamination adds an additional burden to post-conflict reconstruction. Vast areas of contaminated land make it impossible for refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return home and rebuild their communities. In addition, landmines placed around major roads and footpaths prevent humanitarian aid reaching those who need it the most. This not only places a burden on the country affected by the conflict, but also neighboring countries that have taken in refugees who cannot return.
Apart from denying access to contaminated areas, ERWs also have a negative effect on the environment. Unexploded ordnances and landmines can often be left in the ground for decades, undisturbed. Over time, they can contaminate the soil and drinking water, while removed ordnances need to be properly disposed of with an adequate waste management system in place. The presence of landmines in a territory can also hamper environmental conservation. In Colombia, areas cleared of mines left after years of insurgency underwent reforestation, contributing to the recovery of biodiversity and environmental resilience. On a longer term, environmental restoration can lead to economic growth as well, as newly planted areas can provide employment for local communities. Contaminated areas can also have a negative effect on local wildlife, blocking migration routes, endangering the livelihoods and safety of species. Decontamination of such areas not only protects local wildlife, but it can also boost eco-tourism, such as in the case of Zimbabwe, which boasts one of the most densely laid minefields, known as CORSAN, situated between two national parks.
Finally, ERWs when left behind can also get into the wrong hands and be used by local terrorist or crime groups (more generally: non-state armed groups, NSAGs). Explosives taken from mines and other ERWs (either unexploded ordnances or left behind stockpiles) can be repurposed and used in terrorist attacks or in illegal criminal activities (e.g., for the protection of drug plants). This is unfortunately not a new phenomenon, over the past years both Iraq and Egypt have seen numerous attacks carried out with the use of components taken from landmines or other ERWs. Both countries have also reported instances where landmines and ERWs were being transferred and stockpiled by individuals, making it impossible to tell where these weapons and their components then end up.
It was the 25-year anniversary of the signing of the landmark Mine Ban Treaty (The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction of 1997, also known as the Ottawa Treaty) last year. Signatories to the Treaty commit to stopping the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of antipersonnel mines immediately. They must also destroy all stockpiled antipersonnel mines within four years and clear all antipersonnel mines in all mined areas under their jurisdiction or control within 10 years. Currently there are 164 State Parties to the treaty, representing over 80% of the world’s governments. Some countries, such as the United States, Russia, China and India remain outside, though most (not all) non-signatories do not use or produce landmines.
In the last 25 years, huge efforts have been made in clearing countries of landmines and other ERWs, and 28 countries have been entirely cleared and ended the use of landmines. However, a worldwide stockpile of 50 million landmines remain, while new challenges have also emerged. One is new use: new conflicts and new territories becoming contaminated. According to the 2022 Landmine Monitor Report, over the past year, Myanmar and Russia have been reported using landmines or other ERWs, as well as NSAGs in a number of other countries (such as in the Central African Republic, Colombia and India). While NSAGs have decreased their reliance on landmines, there has been an upswing in the number of IEDs used, mostly due to their low cost and easy access to its components. Stopping the use, production and stockpiling of ERWs and decontaminating affected areas, however, is only one aspect of the problem. Adequate risk education for those living in areas affected by mines and other ERWs, proper victim assistance, including healthcare and rehabilitation to those injured by these weapons, as well as supporting countries who do not have the means to independently tackle this problem are key for achieving a mine-free world.
About the Author:
Zsofia Baumann has a background in international relations and terrorism studies, focusing on radicalization, disengagement from terrorism and foreign terrorist fighters. She is currently the Editor of CBNW Magazine.
*Heading picture: Minefield in northern Chile, ©Wikimedia Commons/WeHaKa