This week the Duke of Sussex – Prince Harry – attended a Chatham House discussion in London, addressing landmine clearance in an African country visited by his mother Diana, Princess of Wales a few months before her death in 1997.
Monday’s event, staged in partnership with the Halo Trust, highlighted a £46 million initiative to safeguard the Angolan Okavango watershed, ridding it of all landmines by 2025. Princess Diana was famously photographed walking through a minefield there, highlighting the plight of those maimed by military munitions.
That photograph was undeniably transformative and became an icon that led to considerable UK aid investment. In 2017, the British government committed £100 million to landmine clearance globally, and in 2018 it announced the British demining agencies Halo and MAG were in part to receive a further ‘£46 million of UK Aid’ for landmine clearance in Angola, Cambodia, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burma, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Lebanon and Vietnam.
These places unquestionably have deadly legacy munitions. In 2017, a total of 520 people were killed or injured by landmines and explosive remnants of war in these ten countries.[i] Of these, some 212 were specifically harmed by landmines – the rest by explosive remnants of war and other munition types.[ii]
But while these countries certainly have born witness to some of the worst fighting of later 20th century conflict, it is of note none of these countries were subjected to UK bombing runs in the 21st century. And in those countries that have seen more recent war, the need for demining and explosive material clearance is great indeed – not least from unexploded British bombs.
In 2017, then, in the three countries where the UK has recently conducted air-strikes – Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – some 4,510 people were killed or injured from explosive remnants of war, improvised explosive devices and manufactured landmines – almost nine times the number harmed in those recipient countries of additional UK government funding.[iii]
In fairness, the UK government has, since 2017, provided £10.7m to Iraq, £3.8m to Syria and £20m to Afghanistan for demining operations, but this means that only £34.5m of some £146m allocated – under a quarter – has gone to countries where need is most urgent.
So, while it is important that Angola is freed from the threat of landmines and explosive remnants of war, the UK government’s landmine funding does not seem urgently focused on countries where need is most current and most urgent – namely places where their own unexploded ordnance might pose a threat.
In addition, whilst Diana’s legacy is much valued and of great virtue, another question mark arises with the focus on Angola.
Angola is a place where, by and large, the greatest explosive threat to civilians is from legacy manufactured landmines. In 2017, 12 people were harmed from such devices there. Such manufactured landmines were very much the driving force behind the ban on landmine production enshrined in the Ottawa Treaty of 1997.
Times, though, have changed. Today, globally, only 2% of all civilians harmed by explosive weapons are injured by weapons classified as landmines, whereas the majority of civilians are harmed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). While victim-activated IEDs are prohibited under the Landmine ban, IEDs, in general, pose a profound challenge to those involved in Humanitarian Demining Work. And their threat is getting worse.
Between 2007 and 2017, there was a 24% global decrease in victims from factory-made antipersonnel mines (from 987 to 748), but a 630% increase in victims from improvised mines (from 372 to 2,716). So, for every person harmed by a manufactured landmine, almost 4 people will be harmed by an improvised one.
Putting it simply, minefields like the one that Princess Diana was photographed standing in, thanks to the brave work of demining agencies around the world, are increasingly being cleared. But in their place a new generation of extremist Islamist fighters, and others, have come – laying down a new IED threat.
This rise of the IED landmine fundamentally challenges Prince Harry’s (and the landmine clearance sector’s) noble desire for a ‘world free of mines’ by 2025. For while 29 states have today been declared mine-free, the improvised nature of the IED means that – unlike manufactured landmines, where you can get states to ban their production – their proliferation is unregulated and their eradication far harder. Production of IEDs, then, continues apace, thwarting the ambitions of the Prince and others, making a 2025 landmine-free world an impossible dream.
For the Prince’s ambitions to even be slightly achieved, the UK government must not just focus on demining projects in countries still suffering from 20th-century conflicts, but invest far more in those very countries where they have fought conflicts in recent years. And that task goes above and beyond clearance, but finding imaginative and non-violent ways to stop the proliferation of the IED in the first place.
[ii] 16 in Lebanon, 12 in Angola, 19 in Cambodia, 161 in Burma/Myanmar and 3 in South Sudan and none in either Vietnam, or Lao PDR).
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