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Beyond mine action

The Movement’s approach to weapon contamination


ONE outcome of the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is a resolution that included a call on states to strengthen the protection of civilians against the indiscriminate use and effects of weapons and munitions, stressing the need to address the humanitarian impact of explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions. Apart from efforts on the legal front, the Movement is also striving to reduce the humanitarian impact of weapon contamination through its operations.


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 by weapons?

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 on people.

“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 “The term ‘mine action’ is a very narrow one and in many ways has become outdated and restrictive,” he says.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 and demining.’’

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 ordnance.

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 of capacities.”

These may include water and habitat, economic security, cooperation, communication, protection and legal units, depending on the scenario.

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.

Local know-how

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.


Volunteers of the Afghan Red Crescent Society teach students in Dako about the dangers of landmines and other explosive devices.









ICRC’s Ben Lark with participants of the Nairobi training course on new weapon contamination.










Mine-awareness session for children inNicaragua.

Claudia McGoldrick
Claudia McGoldrick is ICRC senior editor and media relations officer in Geneva.



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