Attempts to ban landmines and eliminate the humanitarian crisis posed by unexploded remnants of war are being hampered by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) which continue to nake use of the weapons.
These NSAGs, including guerrilla fighters, rebel groups, liberation movements, and de facto governments, rarely have legal status and operate in shadows where international law is all too easily ignored.
A new convention, opened for signature in Oslo last week, bans cluster bombs, which split off into hundreds of ‘bomblets’ that can lie unexploded and kill or maim civilians for years after a conflict has ended.
It is arguably the most significant disarmament agreement since the 1997 treaty, which outlawed anti-personnel landmines - specifically those designed to harm individuals, in signatory states. The success of the treaty has been widely acknowledged.
However, the 2008 Annual Report from Landmine Monitor shows that, in most countries, NSAGs are more likely to use landmines than government forces.
“Most present-day armed conflicts take place within states and involve one or more non-state actors fighting either government forces or other armed groups,” explains Pascal Bongard, of Geneva Call, an NGO set up to persuade NSAGs to adhere to humanitarian law.
“Because of their low cost and easy availability, mines have become a weapon of choice for many non-state actors worldwide, significantly exceeding the number of mine-using states. Some even manufacture their own anti-personnel mines. Many groups continue to resort to landmines – Colombian guerrillas and Burmese opposition groups are major users and producers. Some point to the enemy’s superior fire power, claiming that anti-personnel mines are necessary for their defence.”
The groups are diverse: in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, drugs gangs plant landmines around illegal coca fields to protect them. Marxist terror group FARC is among the largest user and producer of landmines in the world, causing hundreds of casualties annually. In Ecuador this year, a group of FARC rebels were blown up while fleeing through one of their own minefields during a Colombian military attack on one of the rebel camps.
Anti-personnel mines are also employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan when targeting the Afghan army and international forces. A spokesperson for the Taliban reportedly confirmed the planting of new mines for this purpose.
When NSAGs control mine-affected areas, they can also interrupt or prohibit humanitarian mine-clearing action. Geneva Call, set up in 2000, works to persuade NSAGs to sign a Deed of Commitment containing the same obligations as the Mine Ban Treaty. Signatures are publicised, and the potential political cost of bad publicity can act as a deterrent to breaking the terms of the agreement.
To date, 35 NSAGs from 10 countries, including Burma, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan, have signed the Deed of Commitment. Other NSAGs have taken steps against anti-personnel mines, although they have not signed up.
Despite this progress, it is a complex problem, due to the nature of NSAGs and attitudes towards them. Firstly, Geneva Call’s mission has faced mixed reactions. The act of entering into dialogue with violent or illegal non-state armed groups is seen by some as controversial and legitimising. Turkey has opposed Geneva Call’s engagement with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who it views as a “terrorist” organisation. In India, there have been problems with foreign Geneva Call staff obtaining travel permits and visas.
Secondly, the frequently fluid or shifting command structure of non-state groups means that their leadership doesn’t always have the capacity to enforce a decision against landmines. They are often beset by factionalism and fragmentation, so commitments don’t necessarily bind the whole group.
Finally, a lack of resources can also limit the capacity of groups to eliminate mine bans. A recent Geneva Call report quotes one NSAG leader as saying, “AP [anti-personnel] mines are cheap to produce and acquire and they are easy to use. Removing them and destroying stockpiles can be incredibly expensive and requires expertise.”
As states agree to destroy their stockpile of cluster munitions, activists are hopeful. “We hope that this new convention will continue to stigmatise these weapons and prohibit their usage,” says Richard Moyes, Policy and Research Director for Landmine Action. “We can't guarantee anything, but it sets an expectation of how countries will behave in conflict, constraining the practice of states. This could also affect NSAGs by inhibiting production and trade.”
Preliminary research by Geneva Call, however, shows that at least four non-state groups are users of cluster munitions, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Serb militia in Croatia. The problem is nowhere near the scale of landmines, but demonstrates that, despite this great step forward, governments alone cannot rid the world of these destructive remnants of conflict.