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Reducing the impact of weapon contamination on populations in Africa

19-07-2010 Interview

Igor Ramazzotti works as a weapon contamination adviser in the regional delegation in Nairobi. His job is multifaceted and covers large regions of the continent, with the overall goal to alleviate suffering of those affected by wars long after the active hostilities have ceased, as he explains.

©ICRC/I. Ramazzotti 
  Chad. Rockets being prepared for destruction    

©ICRC/Boris Heger/sd-e-01627 
  Khartoum, Sudan. A young girl who recently lost part of her leg to a mine is examined by trained ICRC staff, with a view to receiving an artificial leg.    

©ICRC/Wojtek Lembryk/cd-e-00504 
  Katanga province, DR Congo. Working at clearing a mine field near Kabalo.    

©ICRC/VII/Christopher Morris/lr-e-00461 
  Monrovia, Liberia. Young amputees, victims of the war in Liberia that ended in 2003, make the most of their situation as members of a world class amputee football team.    

©ICRC/Boris Heger/sd-e-02238 
  Juba, southern Sudan. An ICRC staff member and orthopaedist examine a patient at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre.    
  Igor Ramazzotti    
     What does "weapon contamination" mean?  

Even after a conflict ends, mines and explosive remnants of war such as unexploded bombs, shells and cluster-munition bomblets continue to kill and maim. This is what weapon contamination means: it can include contamination by unexplod ed grenades or projectiles, by mines of different types, and by small arms and ammunition left behind after a battle.


 What are the consequences for the population living in the affected areas?  

Countless people might die or be wounded in incidents involving explosive remnants of war or mines. Weapon contamination may also deprive entire populations of water, firewood, farmland, health care and education. It can impede relief work, depriving people of humanitarian aid and aggravating humanitarian problems. And it can also cause the displacement of entire populations.


 Which countries in Africa are the most affected and why?  

Mainly countries that have experienced several years of war have this problem, such as Sudan, Chad, Angola or the Casamance region of Sénégal for example. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to measure the degree of weapon contamination. You can measure the contamination by number of devices per square metre for example, but that does not say much about the impact of the contamination on the local population. The ICRC considers the problem from a humanitarian point of view: how serious is the impact of the contamination on the lives of the people living in an affected area, and what can be done about it.

For example, in some African countries there are large landmine fields situated in areas where no one lives or goes, or that are clearly marked – so the humanitarian impact is relatively low. On the contrary, if a small area close to a village is contaminated, it could make it impossible for the residents to work in their fields or access water sources – the humanitarian impact there would be much bigger.

 What exactly is your job as a weapon contamination advisor for the ICRC in Nairobi?  


My job is to support ICRC delegations in Africa that are based in countries where weapon contamination is a serious problem. I go to those countries, and first of all analyze the extent of the contamination followed by the humanitarian impact on the population. Some of the questions I have to answer are, for example, what is the percentage of people having lost their limbs due to mine explosions; do farmers still have access to their fields and are children running the risk of finding unexploded devices near their schools.

As a second step I then assess if and how organizations active in that field respond to these humanitarian problems, be it local NGOs, international organizations or government bodies. That helps me identify possible needs not covered by the actors present in the country.

I also try to get a good idea of the dangers and risks that ICRC staff and Red Cross/ Red Crescent Movement partners encounter for example when delivering humanitarian assistance, or while constructing wells and water points.

Depending on my findings in a specific region, I can propose an ICRC support program to minimize the impact of weapon contamination on the population and help them recover. This can range from mine risk education sessions to orthopaedic programs. In addition, I organize a weapon contamination course twice a year to raise awareness among ICRC staff, in cooperation with the Hum anitarian Peace Support School in Nairobi.


 How can the ICRC intervene to improve the situation?  

The ICRC has been active in the field of Mine Action for a very long time. Historically, in a number of African countries, it concentrated on direct assistance for victims, such as surgical and orthopaedic activities, and mine risk education programs.

Over the years, the ICRC developed the capacity to implement a much more comprehensive mine action program ─ from the collection of information about incidents to the clearance of contaminated areas or the destruction of stockpiles, which is somewhat of a change in the institution's tradition. Today the ICRC deals directly with weapons when deemed necessary, while before it concentrated its efforts on persuading concerned governments of their obligation to intervene.

For instance, we can engage in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) activities, which consist of neutralizing and destroying unexploded ordnance of war. Today the ICRC has its own EOD teams, consisting of at least three team members: two clearance specialists and a medic. For rapid deployment in emergency situations, the ICRC can deploy clearance teams anywhere around the world within 72 hours.

Overall not only wounded people need assistance, but on a long-term basis also those who have lost their access to crops or any other income generation activity located in a contaminated area. The ICRC might decide to initiate micro-economic initiatives or deliver direct assistance in terms of food, water or essential household items to people affected who can no longer fend for themselves because of weapon contamination.

Another important aspect of our unit's activities is bringing support to those countries that face difficulties in meeting their international obligations.


 What does international humanitarian law say about mines, cluster munitions and explosive remnants of war?  


Taken together, customary norms of international humanitarian law, Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines, Amended Protocol II and Protocol V to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions now constitute a comprehensive international legal framework for preventing and dealing with the human suffering caused by mines, cluster munitions and all other explosive munitions used by armed forces or non-State armed groups.

States parties to these instruments are prohibited from using landmines and cluster munitions, and have obligations ranging from clearing contaminated land and destroying stockpiles to providing comprehensive assistance to victims.