The international campaign against landmines championed by the late Princess Diana has been driven into sharp reverse by the growing use of homemade devices in countries like and Iraq.
Mine clearance groups are testing experimental mechanical systems to deal with the issue after Stan Brown, the US state department’s leading authority on landmine clearance, warned that a new generation of improvised explosives are more labour intensive, costly and complex to remove.
The marked rise in casualties caused by mines, which follows years of gains in global clearance efforts, has been blamed on semi-industrial production of the devices by in Syria and Afghanistan.
The international campaign against landmines, which first came to prominence when Diana, Princess of Wales for the movement, has made significant progress in clearing the legacy of mine contamination in countries as diverse as , Angola and Cambodia.
“We’d seen overall cases of mine casualties, which in the late 1990s were running at 9,000 a year – with 88% of those civilians and 40% children – drop to under 4,000,” said Brown.
“But in 2015 and 2016 with Syria, Iraq and Yemen we have seen those figures rising again to 6,000 in 2016.”
The annual , released in December by the Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines, put the figure even higher, recording 8,605 casualties in 2016, among whom nearly 2,100 people were killed.
In December, Loren Persi, of Landmine Monitor, blamed a handful of conflicts for the reversal. “A few intense conflicts, where utter disregard for civilian safety persists, have resulted in very high numbers of mine casualties for the second year in a row,” said Persi.
The production and use of landmines have fallen since 1999, when the came into force, outlawing the use, stockpiling, and transfer of mines. But Syria has not been a signatory country, while non-state groups have increasingly used the devices.
Brown maintained that global anti-mining efforts continue to make significant progress in terms of clearing minefields left as the legacy of the cold war, but said the recent increase comes primarily from homemade landmines manufactured by Isis.
Containing far larger amounts of explosives than conventional anti-personnel devices – sometimes in the order of 10-15kg in comparison with 200 grams – these homemade incendiaries have been laid in their thousands as barrier mines around locations like the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Though often relatively simple devices, the mines – usually victim detonated by a homemade pressure plate – require far higher investment in clearance training and technology.
“One of the of problems of these kinds of improvised explosive devices [IEDs] is that it is difficult to define the scale of the problem.
“When you look at expertise required for traditional landmine decontamination, it is straightforward to take local civilians and educate them in clearing.
“These kind of IEDs require a much more sophisticated level of knowledge, someone in the explosive ordinance disposal field with many years of experience.”
One issue, explained Brown, is that during the period of Isis’s self-declared “caliphate” – covering large swathes of territory, from Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria – the group was able to produce and deploy huge numbers of its own landmines relatively unmolested.
The Halo Trust, the largest organisation working in humanitarian mine clearance, will begin working to clear the huge Isis-created barrier minefield around Fallujah later this summer.
Halo, which has in the past largely relied on locally trained mine clearance personnel, is among the groups experimenting with fresh approaches to clearing the new generation of crude mines. The methods under consideration include a modified, reinforced rock crusher, usually used in quarrying.
James Cowan, Halo’s chief executive, is anxious to make a distinction between a wider class of IEDs, some of which were built to booby trap buildings and target vehicles, and Isis’s homemade landmines.
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“What we are seeing in the Middle East and is a proliferation of homemade mines with one factor: the ability of Islamic State, in particular, to produce them in their own factories.
“While the Taliban has been a cottage industry, the Islamic State really was semi-industrial.
“If you look at Fallujah as an example, there is a 15km long mine belt around it. We are talking about tens of thousands of mines.”
Where Cowan disagrees with Brown, however, is over the question of who should be involved in the clearing.
“I think donors and the international community are missing a trick by not channelling more support into local people. It is more cost effective, the deminers are more accepted by the local people, and they need less security support than former foreign military personnel who are paid large sums.”