Landmine deaths are on the rise – and eliminating them all will take decades

Almost a quarter of a century after most countries of the world signed a convention banning the use of anti-personnel landmines, the number of people killed or maimed by these insidious and deadly weapons remains high – and growing. Landmine Monitor for 2021, published on November 10, reported 7,073 casualties in 2020, including 2,492 killed and 4,561 injured.

This is a significant increase from the 5,554 people killed and injured in 2019. Syria was the most affected country, reporting 2,729 casualties. The report states that the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by insurgents, many of whom were deliberately directed against the civilian population. The other countries with more than 100 casualties recorded in 2020 were Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Ukraine and Yemen,

One of the worst things about it is that many of these people will be dead or maimed by a mine that was laid years, if not decades, before, but has yet to be detected and neutralized.

Over the past decade, our research at the University of Sheffield has sought to quantify how the soil around landmines changes their level of mortality. According to the Landmine Monitor report, around 5,000 square kilometers would need to be cleared. By my calculations, at the current rate of customs clearance, it will take around 34 years and cost around £ 14 billion.

Indiscriminate war crimes

Historically, military forces have deployed anti-personnel mines (those designed to explode in the presence, near or in contact with a person) to create defensive barriers or to deny access to specific areas or facilities. Military use requires areas to be marked as minefields – failure to demarcate mine-infested areas is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Once the conflicts are over, these mines are abandoned, having a devastating effect on the local population for decades to come.

Read more: Two decades after their ban, it’s time to make landmines war crimes

Landmines are indiscriminate in their destructive power, being set off by soldiers and children (more than half of the victims in the 2021 report were children). This, combined with the fact that they can remain unexploded for decades before killing or maiming innocent people, led to the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of anti-personnel mines and their destruction, unofficially known as the Ottawa Convention.

A young girl walks past a garden bounded by red and white tape.
More than half of the landmine blast victims in 2020 were children.
EPA-EFE / Yahya Arhab

While 164 states have signed the treaty – including the UK – many major military powers around the world have yet to do so, including Russia, China and, thanks to the Trump administration’s turnaround, the United States. United. Other non-signatories include many countries with active minefields, including Syria, Egypt and Myanmar.

The difficulties in rehabilitating mined areas should not be underestimated, as they take both time and money. This is why many mined areas take so long to clear. A common misconception is that if the production of anti-personnel mines were to cease and stockpiles were destroyed, the problem would start to diminish.

IED – the next generation

Unfortunately, in areas like Afghanistan, where the highest number of casualties has been recorded over the past 20 years, the threat does not come from standard landmines but from home-made buried IEDs. Unmarked, with a range of different trigger techniques, from pressure plates to triggers placed under harmless objects such as rocks, it’s easy to see why children are disproportionately injured and killed due to their inquisitive nature.

Improvised mines are used by anti-government elements as a “weapon of choice”. The flexibility of deployment and trigger mechanisms of these improvised mines make the demining of areas even more dangerous, especially in areas still in a state of political turmoil – where deminers themselves can become the target of attack.

Man carrying two anti-personnel mines on bare ground.
Mine clearance: a Saudi Arabian-funded program for the clearance of landmines laid in Yemen by Houthi rebels.
EPA-EFE / Najeeb Almahboobi

One aspect often overlooked is the lasting effect on local communities. In areas like Syria, retreating occupation forces are actively targeting both local settlements and the homes of displaced people. This has the effect of prolonging the trauma of the conflict for returnees after the supposed end of a conflict.

The type of home-made device is also constantly evolving, making it more difficult – and dangerous – to train demining personnel. While mines were once used only as a military tactic to prevent hostile military forces from gaining access to a strategically important area, they are now often used to enforce the values ​​of retreating forces. ISIS is a terrorist group that uses landmines to target community educational facilities like schools and swimming pools, adding to the oppression of the local population.

Make the difference

The United Nations Development Program, with the help of charities such as the Halo Trust, is working with local volunteers to clean up these areas once the occupying forces leave. It is a process that requires specialized equipment, training and time. A key part of the process is learning to live around active minefields.

Governments and charities are training local children on how to protect themselves while minefields await clearance. This can significantly reduce the number of casualties in post-conflict areas.

The Landmine Monitor report does not focus only on minefields and casualties, but also on the work of charities and governments in clearing affected areas. In 2020, 146 km² of land was cleared, with more than 135,000 anti-personnel mines destroyed. That’s potentially 135,000 lives protected.

So while the deadlines seem long, the impact for those who live and work in mined areas cannot be underestimated. Hopefully we can see a mine-free world in our lifetime.

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