Few weapons have proven as effective at passive area denial as landmines, or so indiscriminate in the casualties they inflict to combatants and civilians alike, with the danger they pose often persisting long after the particular conflict has ended.
From their first appearance in Song Dynasty China, until the closing decade of the 20th Century, for over 700 years landmines had been used in one form or another by most of the world’s armed forces to devastating effect, but by the early 1990s, the tide of global opinion had finally started to turn against them.
Founded in 1992, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) fought relentlessly to prohibit their use, and with the backing of high-profile supporters including the late Diana, Princess of Wales and the Canadian Government, in 1997 those efforts culminated in the Ottawa Treaty. Officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, it came into force in 1999, and by its 16th anniversary on 1 March 2015, ICBL was able to report the smallest number of landmine casualties since records began.
Amelie Chayer, ICBL’s government liaison and policy manager says that today only a small handful of countries still use anti-personnel mines, and there has been a huge decrease in their production and trade, while clearance programmes have benefitted communities and social initiatives are improving the lives of survivors.
"There is still a lot of work to be done, and state parties to the Mine Ban Treaty have agreed on an ambitious Action Plan in Maputo in June 2014 to bring us closer to a mine-free world," she says.
As a spokesperson for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) explains, "it means that in the next years we might witness a world free of mines; something which was hard to believe 20 years ago."
A major success story
One of the biggest success stories so far has been the widespread adoption of the treaty in the 16 years since it came into force. According to GICHD, in 1999, there were just 45 parties to the convention, and only 18 African states committed to the ban; now there are 161 nations bound by the treaty and acceptance is virtually universal across Africa. It is beginning to bring real results; almost all of the states party to the convention have completed the destruction of their stockpiles – a total of some 45 million mines around the world – and some have gone even further .
Dogs are not the only creatures with a nose for explosives.
"In 1999, a world free of mines was a distant prospect. Today 27 states have completed this effort," the GICHD spokesperson says.
Mozambique, which was among that first wave of African first signatories back in 1999, is one of those 27, and represents a major success story for the treaty, arguably its greatest to date.
Between 1964 and 1992, first during an eleven-year struggle for independence against its former colonial power Portugal, and then subsequently over sixteen bloody years of civil war, hundreds of thousands of mines were laid across the country, killing and maiming civilians long after the peace deals were brokered. While the initial aim was to be mine-free by the end of 2009, the sheer extent of the minefields – three times larger than originally estimated – forced that timeframe to slip, but the nation started 2015 mine-free, for the first time in half a century.
Although 56 states around the world remain plagued by landmines, Syria and Myanmar deployed them last year, and many non-state armed groups still need to be persuaded to renounce their use, Chayer believes that Mozambique’s achievement shows what can be done.
"Despite what had been said in the past, clearing all areas that are currently contaminated should not take hundreds or thousands of years," she says. "If the right resources are spent in the right manner, it could take as little as ten years to complete the job."
Resource allocation, however, can be a problem. GICHD says that "a large amount of so called ‘hazardous areas’ are being cleared here very few or no explosive hazards are being found."
While sending clearance teams to areas that simply do not contain landmines seems prudent on the face of it, especially since records of where and when mines were laid have often long since been lost, if indeed there were any to begin with, it risks tying up valuable time and technologies that could be better used elsewhere.
Probably the single most effective tool used to ensure that clearance technologies are targeted where they are most needed is the non-technical survey, an approach based on a combination of desk studies, field observations, interviews and local knowledge, which often allows a very accurate picture of mined areas to be built up.
Next comes a technical survey using more intrusive methods to detect and sometimes destroy mines, and which can also help define the boundaries of minefields, and even sometimes the location of individual mines within them, before the actual clearance gets underway.
That process of humanitarian demining differs greatly from military mine clearance, and most significantly in that it must be comprehensive, since incompletely demined areas declared ‘safe’ obviously risk increasing landmine injuries among the local population. As such, much of what is done relies on tried and tested means that have changed little since WW2, principally involving brave souls in protective clothing, working carefully over the ground using metal detectors, prodders and armoured vehicles designed to detonate mines on contact.
Rats to the rescue
There have also been some new ideas for landmine clearance, the perhaps most unexpected of which involves recruiting a rat.
US officials have signalled their intention to stop the production, purchase and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines.
While a number of agencies use sniffer dogs very effectively to detect mines, for Belgian NGO APOPO, trained African giant pouched rats, popularly known as HeroRATs, bring several unique advantages to the role. Being indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, they are readily and cheaply obtained, inexpensive to maintain, long-lived and easy to transport, while their light weight means they will not trigger mines even if they walk on them.
Motivated by food rewards and trained to indicate mines by scratching at the ground, HeroRATs have been credited with helping APOPO’s team in Mozambique find and destroy more than 2,400 landmines, and return nearly 1,500 acres of land to the people. While this is obviously the primary aim of demining there is, nevertheless, another big aspect to the whole issue of landmine casualties which still needs to be addressed.
"Once the daunting task of clearing land is completed in any country, the people who survived landmine explosions are still entitled to life-long support," Chayer says. "Demining is not the one and only way to address the legacy of landmines: the solution to the problem is much larger and it encompasses assistance to survivors."
International conventions establish the right of people who have survived landmines and other explosive remnants of war to medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychological support and socio-economic inclusion in their communities, but it seems that is not yet happening across the board.
"There is still a long way to go before these rights are fully realized," Chayer says.
Perhaps when they are, the war on landmine casualties really will have been won.