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Landmines are being used again. Bold UN action must help their post-conflict victims

Landmines are being used again. Bold UN action must help their post-conflict victims

Last year, Ukraine became the most land-mined country on Earth. It is an inauspicious harbinger for this year’s 25th anniversary of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty entering international law.

By some estimates, one-third of Ukraine is now contaminated. Even more will be before this conflict is over.

The frontiers of this treaty are clearly being stretched. Until this war, no signatory country, like Ukraine, had been invaded. Neither had a non-signatory, as is Russia, entered a land war of conquest. Both have been laying mines since the invasion.

But this does not mean the treaty has failed. Over the last decade and a half, some 30 countries have been declared mine-free — including Mozambique, once, like Ukraine, the most mined country on the planet. The number of signatories has risen to 85% of the world's nations.

What the treaty does not do is hold states accountable after war has ended to cooperate in mine clearance or support victims. In that regard, strengthening the treaty would be an honourable endeavour — but it would take time.

International legal obligations are paramount

This International Landmine Awareness Day, the world must be faster. New United Nations Human Rights Council action to highlight the obligations of states is necessary.

Such action should hold nations of the world to account under other, already existing international laws and treaties to which States are already bound, beyond the strictures of Ottawa.

This can start by focusing on countries’ human rights obligations and how they can be re-tooled to support swifter demining and rehabilitation efforts, post-conflict.

Irrespective of whether they are party to the Mine Ban Treaty, states are legally obliged under international human rights law to promote and protect the rights of victims and people living in affected communities.

It is not only in the human rights sphere where states also have obligations. They also have obligations under international environmental law.

Afghan men who have lost their legs due to landmines learn to use their new prosthetics at the ICRC centre in Kabul, May 2022
Afghan men who have lost their legs due to landmines learn to use their new prosthetics at the ICRC centre in Kabul, May 2022 - AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

They are also obliged under the duty of international cooperation to work together on demining — providing maps of where mines are located, supporting victim rehabilitation, and the return and reintegration of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

It is not only in the human rights sphere where states also have obligations. They also have obligations under international environmental law.

Evidence collected from 27 institutions consulted and 20 communities visited through the recent Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) study confirms that mine action positively contributes to climate resilience.

However, when these legal obligations are not clarified in one place the consequences are clear to see.

Mine clearance, a Herculean task

In some countries, post-conflict clearance is delayed and causes unnecessary civilian casualties due to lack of funds.

Bosnia is an example of a country where a generation after conflict ended half the country’s mines remain, and with post-war civilian mine fatalities now almost identical to the numbers caused during it.

In countries of the global South, this lack of financial and technical capacity to demine and support affected communities is even more acute.

It is vital, in post-conflict situations, that relevant parties share ... maps to facilitate mine clearance, prevent further loss of life and injury, and allow life to return to normal.

A Bosnian soldier searches for mines in fields near the banks of the river Bosnia which flooded near the town of Visoko, May 2014
A Bosnian soldier searches for mines in fields near the banks of the river Bosnia which flooded near the town of Visoko, May 2014 - Sulejman Omerbasic/AP Photo

In other countries, it has little to do with money. There are, for instance, few financial implications for supplying mine maps.

It is vital, in post-conflict situations, that relevant parties share such maps to facilitate mine clearance, prevent further loss of life and injury, and allow life to return to normal.

Such cooperation is also essential to allow for the return of IDPs. For example, in places such as post-conflict Nagorno-Karabakh, considered one of the most intensely landmined territories on Earth, the lack of detailed knowledge of the location of landmines represents a major obstacle to the safe return of thousands of displaced persons.

The speed of the provision of mine maps is crucial too. In Vietnam, more than a half-century of weather and soil erosion has passed, moving mines from where they were originally laid, leaving maps less than accurate. This adds to the size of the territory requiring detection and clearance.

Civilians are the victims, not the soldiers

Landmines are weapons of war that remain, after military confrontation, as destabilisers of peace.

Civilians and children, not soldiers, are the victims who continue to be maimed or killed by mines after the fighting has stopped.

This undermines reconciliation by continuing to fuel resentment and hate between communities and countries while lingering to pollute land that could be farmed or repopulated by victims displaced during the fighting.

It may not be possible to stop nations completely from laying mines in war. However, states can and should be better held to account for these dual human rights and natural world responsibilities after wars have been fought using landmines.

Further action at the Human Rights Council is crucial. Together, we must work to compile human rights and environmental post-conflict obligations on land mines in one place to emphasise these long-standing but too often overlooked post-conflict obligations.

Marc Limon is the Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group in Geneva; Ambassador Yvette Stevens is Executive-in-Residence at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, former head of the permanent mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations in Geneva, and UNHCR Representative to Kenya and Somalia; Ben Keith and Rhys Davies are human rights lawyers of 5 St Andrew’s Hill Chambers and Temple Garden Chambers respectively, and co-founders of International Human Rights Advisors; Murray McCullough OBE is former British Army officer, former head of the EU mission to Mostar, Bosnia, a former member of the EU-ASEAN peace monitoring mission to Aceh, Indonesia, and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Myanmar; and⁠ Dr Nidal Salim is Director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health, an NGO in consultative status with UN ECOSOC.

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