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Tackling the explosive fallout of conflict

16-01-2014 Feature

Mines and unexploded bombs may not make the headlines in today’s conflicts but they are responsible for countless injuries and deaths long after any war is over.

ICRC explosive ordnance disposal worker busy at work in Missan Governorate, Iraq.

New delegate Mark Thomlinson describes what he learned on a course organized by the ICRC in Nairobi, Kenya, to help its staff living and working in contaminated environments to combat the hazards posed by mines and unexploded ordnance.

The term unexploded ordnance refers to explosive weapons which did not explode as intended when they were deployed.

Mines cause significant damage to people’s ability to earn a living by turning workable land into no-go areas that may be unusable for decades, depriving them of water, firewood, and farmland.

The ICRC has the know-how to make these areas safe. But as I saw for myself during a mock mine-clearance, this is a slow, painstaking process requiring expertise that even many advanced militaries lack.

Most of the unexploded bombs dating from World War One remain as dangerous as they were a century ago, while millions of cluster-munition bomblets are still scattered across areas of South-East Asia forty years after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. A single cluster bomb contains hundreds of explosive sub-munitions, up to 40% of which do not detonate when they hit the ground. This means a farmer ploughing his land or a child looking for a plaything might be killed or maimed when they try to move an unexploded bomb.

Laos: Pile of explosive remants/UXO
Piles of rusted bombs, mortars, and unexploded submunitions outside a metal foundry in Xieng Khouang province, Laos.

One way the ICRC helps people avoid the danger and return to a normal way of life is to educate them about the risks involved and seek alternatives that minimise the need to enter contaminated areas – for instance, by providing new water pumps and wells in safe areas. Long-term solutions, however, require the support of a national Red Cross or Red Crescent Society and a national Mine Action Centre, if one exists.

Posters and education campaigns can help people recognise the threat and advise them how to react in case of an incident, and give them the Dos and Don’ts of safe behaviour.

Some of the problems caused by mines and unexploded bombs are being addressed by international treaties. The course gave ICRC staff an overview of the legal environment and equipped them with data-gathering tools to help them push the humanitarian agenda on the ground.  Over one hundred states have signed up to a treaty banning the use and stockpile of cluster munitions, while the Ottowa Treaty aims to eliminate landmines. States which have signed up must ban the manufacture and export of these weapons, which over recent decades have been shown to kill or injure more civilians than soldiers.

As well as being difficult to clear and hard to find, mines also cause injuries that are difficult to treat, even for experienced doctors.  When ICRC delegates talk to states or armed groups, they can highlight the humanitarian impact of using such indiscriminate weapons, and remind those fighting of their legal obligations to avoid disproportionate civilian casualties.