The late Princess Diane during her visit to Angola in 1997 to highlight the issue of landmines.

Incoming American president Joe Biden has yet to confirm his post-election stance on President Donald Trump’s loosening of restrictions on the use of land mines by US forces in conflict areas.

Since his election, Biden has stated he will overturn the out-going president’s controversial decisions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement and to pull out of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Following Trump’s January 2020 decision on landmines, Biden was one of six leading Democrats to vow to reverse the new landmine policy. A key question yet to be answered is whether or not Biden will sign the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty.  By January 2018 a total of 164 countries (including South Africa) had ratified or acceded to the treaty.

Biden said in a campaign statement issued in February and published by the Vox news channel that ‘the Trump administration’s reversal of years of considered decisions by Democratic and Republican presidents to curtail the use of landmines is another reckless act by a president ill-suited to serve as commander-in-chief.

‘It will put more civilians at risk of being injured by unexploded mines and is unnecessary from a military perspective. As president, I will promptly roll back this deeply misguided decision.’

Rachel Stohl, Vice President Conventional Defence at the authoritative US think tank the Stimson Centre says that as a presidential candidate, ‘Biden indicated he would return to the earlier Obama-Biden approach towards landmines which set the goal of eventual US accession to the (landmine) treaty. We don’t have a lot of indication of his position on landmines other than the legacy of his work as vice president and his approach under the Obama administration. I would assume that would be his starting blueprint.’

Biden’s policy regarding the use of landmines takes on added significance as a result of recently announced developments in sensor technology and aerial drones led by the US Air Force Academy, the HALO Trust and One Engineering.

The HALO Trust, a London-based landmine clearing consultancy, says the challenge was to use innovative advanced technology to locate bombs and other ordnance from the air before such hidden explosives could kill or maim people and livestock.

The use of the new technology will drastically reduce the time taken to locate and identify ‘landmines, bombs and improvised explosives that can take many months or even years’, says HALO.

‘Through conventional means, these deadly devices must be carefully located by hand, one-by-one, resulting in a painstakingly slow process.

‘Drones that are equipped with advanced sensors can efficiently detect bombs quicker than a human eye or a civilian swinging a metal detector. The drone and sensor packages can save time, resources, and most importantly, lives,’ says HALO.

The new technology is being tested by HALO in active landmine zones in Europe after successful trials undertaken in Colorado Springs, USA. The trials involved the use of drones fitted with magnetometers, thermal cameras, multi-spectral cameras and ground-penetrating radar.

Another innovative development still in the testing stage comprises the destruction of buried landmines from the air. Once a landmine has been detected from the air, a drone will trip the explosive remotely.

According to the Landmine Monitor 2019 report 59 countries and other areas are contaminated by antipersonnel mines as of October 2019.

Massive antipersonnel mine contamination (defined as more than 100km²) is believed to exist in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chad, Croatia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen. Azerbaijan and Western Sahara are also believed to have extensive mine fields.

‘Mine clearance continued to progress in 2018 with at least 140km² of land reported clear of landmines,’ the Monitor states.

Over the past five years (2014–2018) the overall area cleared of landmines is estimated to total about 800km² with at least 661 491 landmines destroyed.

More than 130 000 casualties have been recorded by the Monitor since 1999 when it began globally tracking such incidents. A total of 90 000 people survived the incidents. In the 2018-2019 period, 71% of landmine casualties were civilians, of whom 54% were children.

Donors and affected states contributed nearly US$700 million in combined international and national support for mine action in 2018, a decrease of about $95 million compared with the previous year. The funding was concentrated in five states – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Croatia and the  Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). Overall, international donor support for victim assistance in 2018 increased by $17 million.

The United States and Britain are among the largest donors of funding for landmine clearance and community education about the danger of landmines.

The UK Government provided an additional £36 million recently in support of global landmine clearance in the world’s most landmine-affected countries. The project started in July 2018 and to date has resulted in land being made safe for the benefit of one million people in impoverished communities in 10 countries.

The consortium undertaking the mine clearance and education of affected people includes the HALO Trust and Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Norwegian People’s Aid and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

‘Across Angola, Cambodia, Somalia and Somaliland, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, South Sudan, Laos, Lebanon and Vietnam, we are working together to clear landmines and explosives so that families can live in safety and rebuild their lives,’ says HALO.

In Southern Africa, landmine clearance has been concentrated in Angola for at least the past decade. The late Princess Diana’s iconic walk through a HALO minefield in Angola in 1997 catapulted the landmine issue to prominence. Her son, Prince Harry has since pledged his support for the Landmine Free 2025 project aiming to achieve a landmine-free world.  

HALO states that although Angola’s civil war ended in 2002, landmines and unexploded ordnance continue to kill and maim civilians as they pursue everyday activities. About 92 sq km of Angola is still considered unsafe as a result of buried landmines.

The United States has invested over $134 million in conventional weapons destruction (CWD) efforts in Angola since 1995, most of which was spent on demining operations. More than 395 sq km of land has been returned to productive use. In the process 26 626 landmines and 47 382 items of unexploded ordnance have been destroyed.

Over 1.4 million Angolans have benefitted from the demining operations while more than 166 000 people have received mine risk education.

Gugu Dube, Researcher at ENACT, says ‘apart from the huge clearance operations underway in Angola,  landmine clearance has been undertaken in Zimbabwe.’

ENACT is a European Union-funded project whose primary aim is to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime, including arms trafficking.

Since 2013 in northeast Zimbabwe more than 100 000 landmines have been cleared by local people trained in the hazardous work by HALO.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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