Press Conference to Provide Update on Work of United Nations Mine Action Service

17 November 2009

Press Conference to Provide Update on Work of United Nations Mine Action Service

17 November 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference to Provide Update on Work of United Nations Mine Action Service

The last two years had been remarkable for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) given its destruction of more than 41 million stockpiled anti-personnel mines and the termination of their production, transfer and sale in many parts of the world, Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations said at a Headquarters press conference today.

Accompanied by UNMAS Director Maxwell Kerley in providing an update and overview of that Service’s work, Mr. Titov said mine action was an indispensable element of laying the foundations for peaceful and safe communities, for the rule of law and for sustainable development.  He also introduced the Secretary-General’s latest report on assistance in mine action (document A/64/287), covering the period 2008 to 2009.

Emphasizing that the United Nations system and its partners had “come a long way in ending suffering caused by landmines and unexploded remnants of war”, he pointed out that 14 of the Organization’s entities were involved in mine action to various degrees, with UNMAS, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) the most active on the ground.  Moreover, many States that had not yet joined the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty ‑‑ which had entered into force 10 years ago next March ‑‑ nonetheless respected its basic principles.

He noted that, from 29 November to 4 December, the Second Review Conference on the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (Mine-Ban Treaty) ‑‑ entitled “The Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World” ‑‑ would be held in Colombia.  It would be a milestone in reviewing the success and implementation of the Treaty and for charting the way forward.  As for mine action in the context of peacekeeping, mine clearance had opened 29,000 kilometres of roads in the Sudan, facilitating trade, allowing internally displaced persons to return to their homes, and enabling humanitarian access to some areas, thus cutting the costs of providing relief.

In Afghanistan, site of the oldest and largest mine action programme, the number of casualties had dropped from more than 100 per month in 2005 to less than 60 per month today, thanks to the destruction of an enormous amount of mines, 84,000 of them having been destroyed in 2008 alone.  In southern Lebanon, which had suffered from the scourge of cluster munitions, 42 square kilometres of land had been cleared.  More than 150,000 bomblets had been removed, in addition to 16,000 regular types of unexploded ordnance.

Turning to the report, he stressed that great progress had also been made in recognizing the rights of victims and the disabled, and in addressing the consequences of mine pollution.  Among other things, the United Nations would continue to keep the cause of mine action in the public eye.  The recent relocation of UNMAS to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had also been a “natural feat”, since the Service’s work in post-conflict settings was being done, first and foremost, to create security space generally, and for individuals in particular.

UNMAS also sought to boost national capacity to address immediate and long-term disasters, enable development and create a bridge between peacekeeping and developmental phases, he said.  It was critical that UNMAS personnel be able to deploy quickly, effectively and safely.  In that respect, he paid tribute to Steve Fantham, an UNMAS operations officer based in Juba, South Sudan, who had suffered a severe limb amputation in the course of his duties, but had nevertheless returned to service after rehabilitation.  More tragically, Femisberto Novele, a Mozambican mine-clearer, had been killed in October while removing mines from the buffer zone in Cyprus.  His death, many decades after the active conflict, exemplified in particular just how lethal and enduring the challenge of landmines was.

Stressing that UNMAS was making considerable, tangible progress even as it faced major challenges, Mr. Kerley highlighted 15 requests to extend the clearance deadlines that had been made at the ninth meeting of States parties to the Mine-Ban Treaty last November.  The appeals illustrated that the Treaty’s full implementation remained a difficult target.  Indeed, there had been nearly 5,200 casualties from mines, explosive remnants of war and victim-activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in 2008.  The goals of clearing land and transport routes to improve the likelihood of finding landmines were still hampered by the threat of landmines in more than 70 countries.  In addition, some 14 million stockpiled anti-personnel landmines remained to be destroyed around the world.

He recalled that the legal framework underpinning mine action had been strengthened on 3 December 2008 with the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  Since those munitions had considerable humanitarian, human rights and development consequences for civilians during and after armed conflict, the Secretary-General urged all Member States to ratify the Convention, which had been signed by 103 countries and ratified by 24.  Only six more ratifications were needed for its entry into force.

In his report, the Secretary-General also urged Member States to take measures for the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Protocol V on explosive remnants of war and Amended Protocol II on mines, booby traps and other devices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects (Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons).  The Secretary-General also sought the Assembly’s support for rapid mine-action deployment, as was most recently used in Gaza and which contributed to the protection of civilians and the efficiency of humanitarian operations.

He said the Assembly was also being asked to recognize UNMAS’ role in providing advice and assistance to peacekeeping operations on IEDs and other explosive remnants of war.  That task was particularly urgent in light of recent events in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia.  In two weeks, the thirteenth edition of the Portfolio of Mine Action Projects would be released.  It would describe 277 mine action initiatives in 27 countries, territories or peacekeeping missions for 2010.  Those projects would cost roughly $600 million, if fully implemented.

Noting that UNMAS operated a voluntary trust fund for mine action, he said that sustained funding was being sought from the 19 donors that had contributed $92 million last year to implement its operations.  It was also working to diversify its donor base and to raise the profile of mine action by building on the legacy of Princess Diana’s work and the continuing efforts of colleagues like Steve Fantham.

Asked if Lebanon had signed the Mine-Ban Treaty, and if not, why not, Mr. Kerley said it had not signed, but questions about why not should be directed to the country, itself.

A correspondent noted that, during the debate in the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization), the representative of Sri Lanka had said that his Government had not signed the Treaty because it believed using landmines to demarcate the location of its army bases was legitimate, and asked about that logic.  Mr. Titov said that the Secretary-General strongly supported the Mine-Ban Treaty and advocated the prohibition of that weapon.  That applied to Sri Lanka and other countries where mines were still used.

He noted the considerable decline in the use of landmines, saying that, in 1997, mines were used in 19 cases, and in recent years, that number had dropped to three to four cases a year.  The Mine-Ban Convention had helped to stigmatize the use of those weapons, and was one reason why the Secretary-General continued to advocate actively for that Treaty.

Asked in a follow-up question if the Convention or the topic of landmines had come up during the Secretary-General’s discussions with the president of Sri Lanka, Mr. Titov said that the United Nations had offered considerable help in eliminating the threat of landmines on the ground through the UNDP and with UNMAS on standby to provide assistance if needed.

Mr. Kerley added that the United Nations was assisting the Government of Sri Lanka by, among other things, importing a number of mine-clearing machines, which should help the rate of mine clearance, particularly in connection with getting internally displaced persons back to their villages.

Pressed on whether there was any link between that Government’s use of mines and the work of UNMAS, particularly with new mines going in while old ones were being taken out, he said that he did not know if new mines were going in, but the main focus of the United Nations was on getting mines out from areas where the displaced would return.

Mr. Titov stressed in that regard that the United Nations encouraged countries to clear mines.  It also helped to locate, remove and destroy mines, if asked.  Countries had to welcome assistance and invite the United Nations in that work.  Overall, mine removal was primarily a national task, which was why national capacities were being built up.

To a question on efforts to protect children in Chechnya, Mr. Titov said there was a considerable public education and advocacy campaign there.  He noted that the number of casualties was dropping, but the threat remained, and the United Nations was working closely with the Russian Federation to mitigate it.

In response to questions about where mines were being used and the possible use of bacteria for removing them, Mr. Kerley said that all potential means of mine removal were considered.  UNMAS was looking at whether bacteria-based technologies could be used, as well as time-lapse and satellite imagery technology.  Dogs were already being used extensively.

Mr. Titov noted the Secretary-General’s recommendation that the United Nations enhance its contribution towards technological development.

Asked about his usage of the phrase “victim activated IED”, Mr. Kerley said such IEDs were, effectively, mines.  That was in contrast to an IED that was initiated by a command wire or a cell phone, which was “in play”, thus making it a weapon.  UNMAS was very careful to guard its impartiality to ensure it could go into all communities and, towards that goal, it made this distinction to prevent going against weapons in play.  If the conflict moved on, a weapon in play became a remnant of war and UNMAS dealt with it under those circumstances.

Mr. Titov added that whether it was weapon in play or not, it was the duty of UNMAS to protect United Nations personnel and property, and it was trying to develop at least some advisory capacity to address the issue within that framework.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.