Concerns raised about transparency in safety in international humanitarian disarmament as study shows 43% of 112 deminer deaths not recorded in their annual reports
At least 112 deminers have been killed globally since 2005 whilst on operations, a study by Action on Armed Violence has found. Notably, almost two-thirds of all deaths came from one organisation. Of equal note is that, of the 112 deminer deaths identified, almost half – 43% – of these deaths were not recorded or named in the annual reports released by these global organisations.
The focus of the report was on charity workers’ deaths when working for international demining organisations, looking at all work-related fatalities between 2005 to October 2021.
The global review was inspired by a recent spate of de-miner deaths, with 2021 already being the most lethal year for the international humanitarian demining workers since records began.
The report sought to examine the patterns of harm to deminers and identify the ways in which a severe deficit in data of deminer casualties has potentially obscured the magnitude and complexities of this problem. Data for this report was sourced from a combination of annual reports, FOI requests, news reports, global monitors and social media posts.
This report has not mentioned specific demining organisations because its intent is not to name and shame, but rather to highlight potential systemic challenges in casualty recording in the demining world.
This report is tragically timely.
2021 has become the deadliest year for deminers since record analysis began in 2005, with 16 deminers having died between January and October alone. In June this year, one demining group suffered the worst attack recorded against deminers yet, with masked gunmen murdering 12 Afghan deminers in bed while they slept.
Overall, Afghanistan has shown itself to be the deadliest place for deminers, with 23 dying in country since 2005. Iraq saw the most sustained rate of fatal demining incidents – since 2016 one death has occurred nearly every year, claiming seven lives.
Over the course of the last 17 years, the main cause of deminer deaths has been from targeted attacks, which killed 36 deminers (32%).
This was followed closely by explosions during landmine operations – by either unexploded ordnance (UXOs), landmines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – detonating near the victim, underneath the deminer’s vehicle or in transit. Overall, these explosions caused 34 (30%) of the 112 deaths.
Road accidents were also responsible for a large proportion (25%) of deminer’s deaths, with both road traffic accidents and targeted attacks often killing multiple deminers at once.
One of the major threats to deminers in recent years has been the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).
Of the 112 deaths, some 23 were from landmines themselves, both manufactured and improvised. Fifteen deminers were killed by manufactured anti-personnel or anti-tank landmines, and 8 were killed by improvised mines – IEDs. Proportionally, 35% of deminer deaths from ‘landmines’ were specified as being from IEDs.
However, most ‘landmine’ fatalities in demining reports did not usually indicate the device responsible. Considering the year and location of some deminer deaths, this 35% ratio from IED harm in demining operations is likely far higher.
Other reported deaths of demining staff included premature detonation of devices before they could be disposed of, heart failure and, in one case, a lightning strike.
In this report ‘deminer death’ was listed as all deaths that could be linked to operational activities, and encompassed all activities undertaken by charities that focus on landmine victims (so not all deaths were specifically linked to handling explosive materials).
Given the high-risk environments that many deminers work in, it is felt that limiting a focus on deaths just to explosive fatalities limits the understanding of the complex risks that people working in the HMA charity sector face.
While this new data sheds light on the day-to-day dangers deminers face, the challenges AOAV faced in corroborating all of these fatality figures points to a fundamental problem within the demining sector itself. Data on deminers deaths is worryingly sparse, if not absent historically from some of the many international demining organisations’ annual reports and press statements. Deminer injury and death rates are therefore likely to be higher than what has been reported, and there is particular concern regarding fatalities of deminers working for national governments that also often go unrecorded.
Even less information exists on demining injuries. Such injuries can be life changing – deminers often have to get very close to an explosive device in order to dispose of it, placing their bodies inches away from serious potential harm, The data on these accidents are significantly less publicly available than those on deaths.
Those few reported injuries offer little distinction between severe and minor injuries, with even rarer mentions of investigations taking place after the incident. This reduces the opportunity for institutional learning within the Humanitarian Mine Action sector and undermines the improvement of risk mitigation processes in IED disposal (IEDD).
And, as well as a failure to accurately record de-miner deaths in their Companies House annual reports, at least two UK-based organisations (there have been 14 deminer charities registered in the UK since 2005) appear to have under-reported the number of de-miner deaths to the UK’s Charity Commission in the last 16 years.
When deaths and injuries are reported, casualties are usually unnamed, the context of the accident or attack is unspecified, and the location is vague. When questioned, one demining organisation stated that they ‘choose to commemorate our deceased comrades on real rather than virtual Boards of Remembrance’.
Why transparency matters
It is understandable why many organisations would want to keep the identities of their deminers and the locations in which they operate private. The latest attack in June makes a compelling argument to support demining organisations’ unwillingness to provide this information. Over 90% of deminers come from local communities and reports which name injured deminers or where they work may compromise them or their personal lives within these settings.
However, the lack of access to deminer accident data directly prevents internal and external evaluation and education from these incidents. Often, multiple organisations operate within the same country or region. Unwillingness to record and share comprehensive accident reports between organisations puts deminers at a disadvantage when working within an area with specific hazards, previously experienced by another group. This inaction potentially puts the privacy of their organisation before the safety of their staff.
Iain Overton, Action on Armed Violence’s Executive Director, said of the findings: “It is deeply concerning that there are charities in the landmine action world that do not make public fatalities of colleagues working in the line of duty. How can the demining sector learn from experiences if such deaths are never debated or recognised? How many deminers killed are local hires, compared to expatriates? What were the causes of their deaths? And have there been any internal or external investigations into any of these deaths in the last decade? Answers are hard to get and the demining mission to make the world a safer place is poorer because of it.”
Overall, there appears to have been historically a marked reluctance of major demining organisations to provide public details of deminer deaths and injuries. Some deaths are only recorded by local press and media.
This appears to have changed in recent years, with some of the major demining agencies adding fatal incidents to their annual reports.
However most agencies still fail to post stories of the lethal incident on their websites. Also, on some occasions the coverage in annual reports did not consistently match the number of deminers killed on operation. And there appears to be very little in the way of institutional or cross-agency lessons learned.
To conclude, more steps need to be taken to ensure that each deminer killed or heavily injured in field work for international demining agencies is properly recorded and processed, with systems in place to ensure lessons are learned. Deaths deserve to be reported on websites, as a bare minimum.
A failure to do so could be seen by some as a failure to abide with the basic principles of the Landmine Treaty.
Report by Luke Unger and Emily Griffith
This report has been edited to include a link to UK based demining agencies since 2005
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