Press Conference on Mine Awareness, Action to Mark International Day, 4 April

4 April 2013

Press Conference on Mine Awareness, Action to Mark International Day, 4 April

4 April 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Mine Awareness, Action to Mark International Day


While emphasizing that the battle to rid the world of landmines “has largely been won”, increased global support was needed to sustain the United Nations wide-ranging assistance programmes, officials from the Organization said today during a press conference held in connection with the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.

“We need funding, support and engagement,” said Paul Heslop, Chief of Programmes, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS),who was among those urging countries to sign on to the landmark 1997 Ottawa Mine-Ban Treaty, formally, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, as well as to bolster the “massive work” that was still ongoing to deal with the deadly consequences of unexploded ordnance and abandoned weapons depots.

Mr. Heslop was joined by Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General of the Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, who read out Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message for the International Day, and said that mine action was one of the core aspects of the United Nations work.  Indeed, the effort was saving lives and ensuring safe deployment of United Nations mission personnel, peacekeepers and police, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance, protecting civilians and ensuring the safe return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

Also at the press conference were Saleumxay Kommasith, Permanent Representative of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Miguel Berger, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany; and Timothy Horner, Mine Action Adviser, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Responding to questions, Mr. Heslop said that there was not a lot of evidence that many new mines were being laid or that factories were today producing thousands of those weapons.  Indeed, far more mines were being cleared than were being laid.  The battle, in many respects, had been won.  But at the same time, getting concrete data on landmine production and use was difficult. 

What evidence was available had generally shown that weapons discovered were former Warsaw Pact mines, Chinese mines and mines from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he said.  Many mines in Africa had been implanted during civil conflict and could have been provided by whomever was supporting the various warring sides.  The issue of origin “is not always quite so clear”, he said.

Illustrating the tragic complexity of the issue, Ambassador Kommasith said that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic faced the challenge of comprehensively addressing the issue on two fronts:  ridding the country of both cluster munitions and landmines.  Indeed, today, a very small number of people were killed or injured as a result of mines laid during the Viet Nam War; nearly 98 per cent of the casualties were caused by those cluster munitions, or unexploded ordnance. 

He said that during the nine-year war (1964-1973), some 2 million tons of bombs had been dropped on his country and, of those, some 30 per cent had failed to detonate on impact.  “So perhaps 270 million bombs remain in the soil […] or about one third of our home territory is contaminated by unexploded ordinance,” he said, adding that 14 of the country’s 17 provinces were affected.  Moreover, the existence of the munitions added a layer of complexity to the country’s development efforts; almost no project could be started without first clearing an area of concern of unexploded ordinance.

He said that the international community was supporting the Government to clear the unexploded ordnance and to provide assistance for victims.  While he did not want to play the “blame game”, he noted that the United States Government had and was continuing to do its part to help Laos; Washington had provided more than $9 million to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s relevant programmes last year, and he hoped the United States would continue to support such efforts.

Specifically on Syria and Mali, Mr. Heslop said the two countries certainly had had landmines laid during earlier conflicts.  But as for the current fighting in both countries, he said it was difficult to put teams on the ground to assess whether some mines were old, newly placed or moved from previous locations.

“What is obvious is that explosive weapons are being used and some of them have a high fail rate,” he said, explaining that if a child picked up a grenade or mortar bomb that exploded, they might report that it was a mine when it was really another explosive weapon system.  “Now that doesn’t change the horrendous nature of the injury they received or the legacy of that, but the nomenclature can be a bit confusing.”

He said that there had been reports that more than 50 people in Mali had been injured by explosive devices in the past nine months, and that large numbers of people that had been injured by mines in Syria, but again, getting concrete figures was difficult, he said.  Mr. Titov added that United Nations Mine Action staff had been included in the first observer mission that had been deployed early on in the Syrian conflict.  They had assisted and accompanied the Observers in their work throughout the country, and had also provided advisory assistance and training in Damascus.  But security concerns had demanded that the Mine Action Team be withdrawn, though it remained in the region for rapid deployment if requested.

Responding to questions specifically on Myanmar, Mr. Horner said that UNDP had no clear picture of the situation in that country, but was keenly interested in gaining more relevant information.  As for Sri Lanka, he said that even though that country had not signed relevant treaties, the Government bore the main responsibility for dealing with mine clearance and related issues.

Continuing, he said that the Programme had supported mine action in Sri Lanka since 1999, and this year would mark the beginning of a phased handover of that work to the Government, specifically the Defence Ministry.  Mr. Titov added that UNMAS had been trying to engage the Sri Lankan Government and had offered its services, but, as yet, had received no response.  Nevertheless, the United Nations remained ready to work “robustly” with that country on all mine-related issues.

As for determining who produced a landmine, when and where, Mr. Heslop said that not many new mines were produced and “if you could pick up a mine and it had [where, when and by whom] it was produced, it would be easy, but it isn’t.”  The physical condition of the weapon and its type could yield clues about production specifics.  In any case, if a producer was identified and that country was not a party to the Mine-Ban Convention, then it would be under no obligation to refrain from using the mines or to destroy their stockpiles.  If the concerned country was a party to the Convention, the issue could be raised with the instrument’s monitoring body.

There had been a few instances where non-State actors had used landmines, he continued, noting that in Libya, some of the factions had used the weapons, but when the United Nations had raised the issue as intolerable, the factions cleared the mines.  The battle against landmines had been won, he reiterated, but called for sustained international commitment to comprehensively address the issue and to ensure that more countries would become Ottawa signatories.

Highlighting the first of several events taking place at Headquarters to mark the International Day, Mr. Kommasith announced a panel discussion on “Voices from Laos:  Clearing bombs, protecting lives”, which would take place between 1:15 p.m. and 2:30 in Conference Room 2 of the North Lawn Building.

That event, co-organized by the Lao Mission, UNDP and the civil society organization Legacies of War, aimed to raise public awareness about the dangers and risks of cluster munitions and explosive remnants of war.  Moreover, he noted that this year marked the fortieth anniversary of the end of the bombardment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic during the Viet Nam war, which provided an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its commitment to tackling the myriad challenges posed by landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Ambassador Berger announced that at Headquarters in New York and in Geneva, as well as in Berlin, a multimedia exhibit, entitled “For a Mine-Free World”, was set to open, marking the Day and highlighting 20 years of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  The New York exhibit, which would include films, photographs and artwork, would have a special opening event at 6 p.m. this evening, with Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

As for Germany’s work in the field, he said his Government had invested some 20 million Euros this year to finance 45 projects in 24 countries to help people affected by landmines and provide assistance with mine-clearance projects.  One of Germany’s main partners was Handicap International, and it was working with that and other civil society groups to address “real needs” in strife-torn countries, such as Libya and Syria, as well as Mali, where Germany was helping to train army engineers in ordnance disposal.

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