What are some of the
most common weapons left behind after a conflict ends, and
how do they impact on people? What does international humanitarian
law say about landmines, cluster munitions and roadside bombs,
for example? And what kind of activities can the Movement
implement to reduce the impact in environments contaminated
These are just a few of the questions tackled by a group
of some 20 participants at the ICRC’s new weapon contamination
training course held in Nairobi in October 2007. Participants
included senior ICRC managers and specialists from a broad
range of fields, reflecting the cross-cutting nature of ICRC
activities in reducing the effects of weapon contamination
“The main aim of this course is for ICRC managers and
decision-makers to develop a basic but accurate level of understanding
of the weapon contamination issue,” says Ben Lark, head
of the ICRC’s weapon contamination sector in Geneva,
and course director. “Ultimately we want to mobilize,
energize and support the Movement to make an effective contribution
towards reducing the impact of weapons that continue to kill
and maim often long after a conflict ends.”
Explosive remnants of war
The international humanitarian mine action sector is still
relatively young, emerging from the conflict in Afghanistan
in the late 1980s. As Lark explains, mine action has traditionally
been limited to demining and mine awareness. “The term
‘mine action’ is a very narrow one and in many
ways has become outdated and restrictive,” he says.
“The ICRC has moved beyond this and started using the
term ‘weapon contamination’ to describe more accurately
the pollution left behind by armed conflict,” says Lark.
“In order to address the problem, a flexible innovative
approach is essential. It is no good sticking to just awareness
While landmines were the issue that spawned the mine action
sector, it has always been clear that in the field they are
only one part of a much broader problem. Armed conflicts leave
behind a wide array of ‘explosive remnants of war’
(ERW), which include mortars, projectiles, grenades, fuses,
cluster munitions and a variety of other unexploded or abandoned
This lethal legacy not only continues to cause death and
serious injury, it also blocks access to basic commodities
and services, cripples economic activity and hinders reconciliation.
In Cambodia, for example, unexploded ordnance continues to
claim victims among people who collect scrap metal for a living.
In Angola, the abundance of landmines has seriously impeded
the return of displaced civilians to their homes. In the Balkans,
fuses and hand grenades that look beguilingly like toys continue
to maim and kill children who find them. And 30 years after
the end of the conflict in Laos, farmers digging their fields
are still regularly killed and injured by buried cluster munitions.
These are just a few examples in a depressingly long list.
“The point is that simply telling someone to keep away
from landmines and ERW because they’re dangerous is
not going to prevent that person from being killed or injured,”
says Lark. “Many people are effectively forced to take
risks in order to meet their basic needs — to get water,
to access their fields, to reach the market, to go to school,
and so on.”
Weapon contamination should be seen as just one of various
sources of vulnerability during or after an armed conflict,
insists Lark. “This is where the ICRC comes in,”
he says. “The ICRC is not a mine action organization.
It is an organization with a mandate to protect civilians
from the effects of armed conflict — and that includes
issues of weapon contamination.”
Over the past decade, the ICRC has already become a principal
actor in the international mine action sector through the
provision of care and assistance to victims, the promotion
of international norms such as the Ottawa Treaty and the Convention
on Certain Conventional Weapons, and the implementation of
activities to prevent injuries and reduce socio-economic impact.
In order to build on this, the ICRC directorate approved
a new operations framework for preventive mine action in 2005.
“Mine action, as we used to call it, is not a stand-alone
activity,” says Lark. “The aim of the new framework
is to offer a light, flexible, solution-oriented approach
that integrates specialist mine action skills across a range
These may include water and habitat, economic security, cooperation,
communication, protection and legal units, depending on the
In some contexts, the ICRC may have to survey and clear immediate
threats to life and infrastructure to enable its own and Movement
operations to go ahead. In 2007, the ICRC signed rapid response
agreements with the Swedish Rescue Services Agency and the
Norwegian Red Cross, which allow trained personnel to be deployed
under ICRC management within a 72-hour notice period.
In addition to taking direct action, the ICRC has the lead
role for weapon contamination within the Movement, and is
therefore responsible for ensuring that Movement partners
are able to plan and implement activities. The organization’s
preferred approach is to work in partnership with the National
Society working in its own country, due to its local knowledge
and network, and the shared commitment to the same principles.
Indeed, some 90 per cent of ICRC weapon contamination programmes
are based on cooperation and capacity-building.
With their grass-roots networks, National Societies are well
placed to gather the data needed for effective weapon contamination
activities. In Afghanistan and Cambodia, for example, National
Societies gather the vast majority of all data on mine incidents.
This enables mine action organizations in those countries
to plan and prioritize mine clearance and other related activities.
At the same time, the ICRC will provide support to develop
the capacity of national authorities when appropriate.
Since mines and ERW often block access to basic commodities,
the ICRC seeks to provide safe alternatives that will protect
people until the area is cleared. Here too, the National Society
can have an important role to play. The Cambodian Red Cross
Society and the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan, for example,
are implementing microgrants to reduce forced risk-taking
due to economic need. With ICRC and Movement support, National
Societies in Azerbaijan and Croatia, among others, have constructed
safe areas for children living in contaminated areas.
Through their unique networks, National Societies also work
to raise awareness of dangerous areas and low-risk behaviour.
Angola and Colombia are just two examples where National Societies
are key players in mine risk education.
“National Societies are crucial to the long-term success
of the Movement’s approach to weapon contamination,”
says Lark. “It is the ICRC’s responsibility ultimately
to build the capacity of National Societies to address an
issue that in many cases directly affects the lives of their
staff and volunteers.
“It is our hope that this new training course will
contribute to building the necessary momentum to effectively
integrate and mainstream the weapon contamination issue within
the Movement,” he adds.
In addition to the twice-yearly training course in Nairobi,
the ICRC also organizes rapid response training and special
courses for regional advisers.