What is currently being reused and deployed by so-called Islamic State and also threatens anyone playing the game Pokémon Go on their smartphones in Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam? The answer: landmines.
Antipersonnel landmines were first used in the Second World War, and continued to be deployed in conflicts ranging from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. They are now used in only a handful of conflicts, meaning that the vast majority of mines contaminating land today were laid before the turn of the current century. As landmine clearance rates have stagnated over the past ten years, and non-state armed groups have turned to using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in violent conflict, it may seem as if landmines are a problem well on the way to being solved. Donations to mine action programmes have remained substantial, averaging $646 million per year since 2012. Unlike IEDs, the threat posed by landmines is, for the most part, a known quantity. Great strides have been made by the mine action industry in determining almost exactly where landmines are located and how they can be destroyed with minimal impact on communities.
However, according to recent estimates, mines still cause at least ten casualties per day, and continue to affect approximately one third of all countries in the world. Landmine contamination deprives communities of valuable economic resources, be it land for farming or roads for secure transport routes.
So, why have we not yet achieved a post-landmine world?
With the advent of new technology aimed at detecting and clearing landmines, including innovative radiofrequency sensors developed by King’s College London’s Department of Informatics, the potential to rid the world of the landmines threat has never been greater. Earlier this year, the Policy Institute at King’s held a Policy Lab, bringing together key stakeholders from across the mine action industry, from academics to NGOs, engineers to UK businesses, to discuss how these advances in technology can be harnessed to tackle the persistent threat of landmines. Participants raised a number of important issues that represent barriers to cheaper, safer and more efficient demining, which we have since published in a policy briefing, ‘Achieving a post-landmines world’ (PDF).
The briefing outlines four key recurring issues that emerged from discussions between the stakeholders:
- Communication between mine action stakeholders.
- The need for comprehensive data to record the extent of landmine contamination and casualties.
- R&D investment targeted at the ‘land release’ process.
- The increasingly serious problem of IEDs as part of demining operations.
The Policy Lab provided the opportunity for stakeholders across the industry to share their diverse experiences and interpretations of the landmines problem. Since engineers, NGOs, politicians and others all have different funding priorities, and focus on how landmines affect different countries and territories, the landmines problem has been framed in myriad ways. Stakeholder disagreement has led to confusion in defining the landmines problem, and by extension, the development of holistic solutions. One key point raised repeatedly by participants in the Policy Lab was the importance of sustaining communication between seemingly disparate stakeholder groups, in order to encourage more integrated solutions to the landmines problem.
Another concern for stakeholders was the lack of comprehensive data that currently exists to record the extent of landmine contamination, clearance, and everything else in between. The Policy Lab began by setting out the various factors that could comprise a definition of the landmines problem. However, disagreement ensued and the data recording landmine casualties was dismissed as too ambiguous. Our policy briefing (PDF) sets out the key challenges facing comprehensive data collection, including the sensitive nature of information and lack of standardised metrics.
Discussions also focused on where future investments should be targeted in order to achieve cheaper, safer and more efficient demining. A consensus emerged between stakeholders that R&D must continue to focus on enhancing the ‘land release’ process, which determines whether areas suspected of being contaminated by landmines are indeed in need of clearance. By using online and satellite surveying methods, NGOs and demining organisations can better understand their task, and save valuable resources for areas most in need. One such example is the use of Google Earth by the HALO Trust to map out mined areas, and determine where affected communities can settle.
A final area of concern that gathered the most attention from stakeholders is the mounting threat of IEDs. Discussions focused on how IEDs now affect areas already plagued by landmines. Afghanistan, a country that has been contaminated by landmines for decades, witnessed 575 casualties from landmines in 2014, yet 469 casualties from IEDs in the month of July 2016 alone. Both threats are incredibly serious in their own right, yet are becoming increasingly interconnected. Since NGOs, the military and commercial demining organisations already possess the resources and expertise needed to address unpredictable explosive threats, it makes sense that the detection and destruction of IEDs should be integrated into existing demining operations.
As with other complex policy problems, the final stages are often the hardest. The landmines problem has indeed attenuated, but public and government interest has also declined with it. As the Antipersonnel Mine Ban Convention (otherwise known as the Ottawa Treaty) approaches its 20-year anniversary, the landmine problem needs to be reconsidered, to reflect a world so consumed with ever-changing and improvised explosive threats from all manner of violent individuals and groups. This is well worth the effort, as a post-landmine world represents a vital step on the path to achieving peace and prosperity in countries that have lived in fear since antipersonnel mines were laid seven decades ago.
Maxine Vining is a Research Assistant at the Policy Institute and co-author of ‘How to achieve a post-landmine world’ .