Weapon contamination: Reducing risk for communities

Landmines and explosive remnants of war continue to kill and injure too many civilians – during conflict and long after it ends.

An ICRC delegate prepares unexploded devices for demolition, in Libya.
Impact on local communities

Weapon contamination has a devastating impact on communities, causing widespread destruction, displacement, the loss of lives and long-lasting physical, psychological and socio-economic consequences – in some cases, for years or even decades after the last shot was fired.

Damage and destruction of critical infrastructure

When conflict takes place in urban settings, the compound effects on urban services is significant, albeit harder to quantify. Not only do communities face the damage and destruction of critical infrastructure, but efforts to repair and reconstruct are hindered by explosive hazards.

Impeding help that is desperately needed

The presence of weapon contamination in a conflict zone can impede relief efforts, depriving civilian populations of essential humanitarian aid.

Impact on the environment

The presence of landmines and explosive remnants of war as well as released chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials can have long-term effects on the environment, affecting biodiversity and disrupting ecosystems. This weapon contamination can also extend to water sources, posing a risk to health and agriculture.

The principles that guide our work

Both during war and long after the guns have fallen silent, civilians are at risk from unexploded weapons. The presence of these weapons – and the dangers they represent – is known as weapon contamination. It is a problem in many parts of the world, where civilians risk coming across unexploded bombs and landmines and hazardous materials (including those of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear nature).

The exact nature of the risks posed by weapon contamination varies depending on the kind and length of the conflict and the types and amounts of weapons used. But as history has repeatedly shown, wherever armed conflict arises, weapon contamination will surely follow.

Our work to reduce the effects of landmines and explosive remnants of war on civilians

The preventive weapon-contamination activities carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are directly related to our mandate to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict during and immediately after armed conflict. We may also carry out activities aimed at reducing the consequences of weapon contamination and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) hazards on the civilian population.

Assessing the risks

We have the expertise and know-how to evaluate the consequences of weapon contamination and CBRN hazards on the civilian population. The foundation of our work in this field is our risk awareness and safer behaviour methodology. This is an evidence-driven approach that provides critical insight for understanding the nature and impact of contamination and how it is impacting civilians, and then designing and applying measures to help people build resilience to weapon contamination. 

Raising awareness

We carry out information, education and communication campaigns to inform communities about the risks posed by explosive remnants of war. We work to raise awareness about the dangers of unexploded devices, the places they might be, and how to identify and avoid them. 

Facilitating safer behaviours

In some post-conflict situations, awareness-raising about the risks may be insufficient for affected populations to begin adopting safer behaviours and avoid risk if no alternatives exist. Our approach aims to help members of an affected community adopt safer behaviours. For example, where contaminated land puts farmers at high risk, we design suitable mitigation measures, such as helping to develop farming activities in safe areas or setting up alternative income-generating projects. 

Survey and clearance

We support efforts to survey and mark contaminated areas, promote the safe removal and disposal of weapons and identify temporary solutions that will reduce people’s exposure to weapon contamination until the areas are cleared. In instances where there is no system in place locally or the authorities are unable to clear the contaminated areas themselves, we can step in and carry out clearance and other risk-reduction activities.

Enhancing national capacity

We strengthen national capacity to locate and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war from conflict-affected areas and to manage the health effects from blast and toxic trauma. This includes identifying contaminated areas, training and equipping clearance teams and providing technical expertise and support. This way we ensure the sustainability and quality of a country’s national capacities to respond to the problem over the long term.

Blast trauma care

We provide specialized training on blast trauma care to those likely to be first responders to an incident – namely those working to clear an area of unexploded weapons. We also promote good practice and support the development of national capacity in this field.

Prevention from harm due to CBRN hazards

Even though the probability is low, the impact of CBRN incidents would be catastrophic. We work on contingency and training to ensure preparedness to limit the impact on civilian populations as much as possible.

Medical management of CBRN exposure

We help hospitals in conflict zones to prepare staff and facilities to manage patients contaminated with chemical agents during armed conflict and other violence.

Contributing to international legal frameworks and norm setting

We contribute our experience and technical know-how to advocate for stronger legal and normative frameworks, such as International Mine Action Standards or the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines. Our aim is to bolster norms to prevent the use of weapons that cause unnecessary harm to civilians, to support the mechanisms that reduce the risk and promote the rights of communities affected by the damage they can do.