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Why the landmine problem is far from over in the Middle East

December 1, 2016 at 8:01 am

A field with landmines warning sign [Adam Jones/Wikipedia]

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) has released a report highlighting the human cost of landmines last year. The ICBL-CMC is a global network of various non-governmental organisations which campaign for the eradication of mines and cluster munitions.

In its report Landmine Monitor 2016, the coalition noted that 2015 saw “a sharp rise in the number of people killed and injured by mines, victim-activated IEDs, cluster munition remnants, and other explosive remnants of war.” The report noted that despite the fact that states using landmines remains “a rare phenomenon”, at least 6,461 people were victims of landmine violence in 2015, a dramatic increase of 75 per cent over 2014.

The report also explained that the significant rise in landmine casualties was a result of non-state actors using the munitions; such groups in 10 countries used landmines, 40 per cent of which are in the Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) region. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya are all on the list.

Why are landmines controversial?

Landmines contain explosives which detonate when pressure is applied to them; it can come from people, vehicles or any other objects large enough to trigger the mine. There are four types of landmines: anti-personnel, anti-tank/vehicle, anti-helicopter and nuclear.

One of the main strategic justifications for the use of landmines is that they can disable enemy combatants unexpectedly. It is also argued that they are effective in protecting territory against armed intruders. Such arguments tend to ignore the civilian cost of using mines, focusing instead on the military advantages.

Though landmine technology has developed drastically within the past century, there are not a relatively recent phenomenon. The first recorded use of mines dates back to the 13th century when the Song Dynasty in China fought against the Mongols.

Landmines were in common use during the First and Second World Wars, although their effectiveness was inconsistent. During WWI, the invention of the tank prompted the development of the anti-tank mine, designed specifically to destroy vehicles. They were large and didn’t always function properly. They could also be spotted quite easily and redeployed against those who had laid them in the first place. It was the Germans who developed mines which could not be redeployed.

In fact, as European military technology advanced between the two World Wars, Germany entered WWII with only two types of anti-tank mine and one anti-personnel mine. By the end of the war it had 16 varieties of anti-tank mines and 10 types of anti-personnel mines. Though this was a victory for military technology, the effects of the advances in that era continue to haunt civilians today.

Implications for the MENA

In MENA states where armed conflict has been ubiquitous over the past few years, even though some governments are in denial about the loss of their military monopoly, non-state actors therein are powerful. Landmines are a feature of the non-state arsenal.

In Yemen, the Houthi rebels have used landmines from the Soviet era, especially around the besieged city of Taiz, to block any advances by resistance groups. Taiz is the third largest city in Yemen, so civilians are landmine victims on a disproportionate scale.

In August alone, 11 civilians, including seven children, were killed when they stepped on an anti-vehicle mine in Taiz, where thousands of landmines have been scattered across the city by Houthi and pro- [ex-President] Saleh forces. They are also found in the mountains, which besieged civilians use to smuggle food, water and other necessities.

Militant groups in Syria also use landmines. On 3 October, mines laid by Daesh killed 21 anti-Assad rebel forces in Aleppo. Lebanese Hezbollah forces have also used mines in Syria, especially in the besieged city of Madaya, where there are estimated to be more than 8,000 landmines. Across Syria, there are 5.1 million people at high risk of being killed or injured by a landmine; just under half of them are children.

MENA states need to take responsibility for landmine usage. In addition to its alliance with Hezbollah, which uses mines, the Syrian regime has also been laying landmines across the country since 2012. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has also dropped US-made cluster munitions to devastating effect. Cluster bombs don’t explode on impact; they scatter bomblets across a wide area which are very likely to be picked-up by children who think they are toys; those who do this usually lose limbs or worse.

Amnesty International interviewed a boy in Yemen who was victim of a cluster bomb. He explained that he mistook the mine that injured him for a “small ball that you play with.”

While it is obvious that MENA states are continuing to neglect their legal and moral duty to clear landmines, they should also stop buying and using them. The role of non-state actors in this must not be underestimated. The international community must know that landmines remain a major problem in many countries, especially in the Middle East-North Africa. Pressure must be brought to bear on state and non-state actors, whoever they are, so that they are held accountable for their use of these weapons which kill and maim indiscriminately.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.