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UN world day for mine action, 4 April – view from the ICRC

30-03-2007 Interview

The United Nations says that, despite a marked fall in the number of victims in the past ten years, some 15,000 people are still killed or injured each year by mines and other unexploded war debris. Interview with Ben Lark, head of the ICRC’s mine action sector.


  Ben Lark, head of the ICRC’s mine action sector    
     What are the aims of the UN’s mine action day?  

It’s to help maintain a strong public profile for the issue. This awareness is important to ensure continued funding and to solve outstanding issues from the 1997 Ottawa Convention – such as universal adherence to the treaty.
And we also need to keep the issue alive in the countries that are themselves affected.

  ICRC mine action activities

  • Assessing the impact of mines and other weapons-related contamination (in some countries most data on incidents is gathered by national societies, with support from ICRC)
  • Providing interim solutions that help people avoid danger – for example by creating safe sources of drinking water, or granting micro-credits for income-generating projects
  • Promoting respect for international law that regulates the use of weapons
  • Working with communities in emergency situations to reduce the impact of contamination

 What other issues are outstanding from Ottawa?  
Targets were set for all who signed and ratified to clear AP mines on their territory within ten years – that deadline is 2009 for some. But minefields aren’t conveniently fenced off and easy to find! Mines may be scattered, there may be no records...
Also, some minefields don’t actually pose a threat to the civilian population – for example high mountainous areas where not many people live, so one might ask if huge resources should be devoted to clearing them.
The point is that, while the Ottawa Convention deals specifically with anti-personnel mines, the mine action community is trying to come to grips with all weapons-related contamination that impacts on civilians.

 What are the other threats?  
Most battle areas are littered with other explosive hazards – cluster bombs, which if they fail to explode, can be very unstable and destructive; grenades; fuses and live rounds of ammunition. All of these can be very dangerous. Often, because of economic need, these items are a source of valuable scrap metal - putting those that collect it at great risk.

 Is enough clearance taking place?  

    I believe clearance is proceeding at a realistic rate. But the issue is rather that clearance is not an end in itself: it is something that aims to facilitate other activities that allow people to live a safe and more normal life – for example, safe agriculture land, access to water, infrastructure, markets, transport, and so on.
The challenge facing us in the ICRC is how to better integrate mine action – that is to say, activities that seek to reduce the impact of weapons-related contamination on the civilian population – into field activities wherever relevant.
This approach is not totally new, but has never been institutionalised. In Angola in the 1990s, for instance, some towns were encircled by mines, preventing people from reaching their fields. ICRC relief staff helped people to establish small vegetable gardens on the edge of town and the problem was certainly alleviated, if not solved.

 After ten years of mine action activities, where is the ICRC headed?  
We are developing an integrated approach to reducing impact and dealing with the problem of contamination. To do this, we are working closely to ensure that all our field staff recognise the characteristics of different patterns of contamination, taking it into account where and when it is an issue.
We have a broad flexible approach to reducing impact, within which traditional awareness activities have only a small part to play. We are also developing our ability to respond rapidly with multi-skilled teams in emergencies.

 Read more on the   UN International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action