Land mines: EU efforts needed across Eastern Partnership

Feature 1 July 2022
Land mines: EU efforts needed across Eastern Partnership

The 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the more recent war in Ukraine, has refocused attention on the need for enhanced EU de-mining assistance across Eastern Partnership countries, writes Samuel Doveri Vesterbye on the EURACTIVE website. Samuel Doveri Vesterbye is Managing Director at the European Neighbourhood Council (ENC).

Landmines are usually buried underground, and the majority are activated by pressure. Left behind after wars or internal conflict, mines are prominent across Eurasia and Africa, often situated close to where families live and work. Children are especially oblivious to the risks associated with landmines due to their inquisitive nature and height measured from the ground up. De-mining is imperative for the preservation of their lives and that of their families.

The UN estimates that more than 110 million land mines are strewn across 64 countries. High-risk areas include Bosnia & Herzegovina, with 3 million land mines (152 per square mile) and Cambodia, with 10 million land mines (143 per square mile). Each year, 26,000 people are killed or injured by land mines, which amounts to 3 people per hour, nearly all of them innocent civilians.

The European Union (EU) is the second-largest donor in the world for mine action removal. De-mining is one of the EU’s “highest foreign policy priorities”, also linked to its 2030 Agenda and Environmental Strategy.

It falls within the EU’s significant security portfolio, including early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management, and post-conflict rehabilitation. Between 2012 and 2016, the EU and member states contributed over €600 million to mine action.

The financial support dedicated towards the removal of mines increased by 52% in the 2016-2020 budget, which shows the importance dedicated to this humanitarian cause, which affects thousands of civilians each year across the EU’s immediate Neighborhood, including countries that suffer from mining problems like Bosnia & Herzegovina, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

The war in Bosnia ended more than two decades ago, yet over 80,000 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance still pose a direct risk to more than half a million residents.

Mines injured at least 1,750 people in the post-war period, and 614 cases were fatal. Most of the accidents are caused by PROM-1 anti-personnel mines, which were banned under the Ottawa Treaty 20 years ago. Almost 15% of victims are children. Because children are physically closer to the ground, they are more likely to be injured by a landmine blast. Children cannot read the danger signs and often mistake mines for toys.

They remain the world’s most vulnerable group exposed to anti-personnel landmines. The Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre estimates that there are 180,000 unexploded mines left over from the wars of the 1990s. Over 130,000 have been removed, and 617 lives have been lost.

The 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the more recent war in Ukraine have refocused attention on the need for enhanced EU de-mining assistance across Eastern Partnership countries. In the case of Ukraine, real figures remain difficult to obtain due to the ongoing conflict, but estimates by leading experts indicate that high numbers of anti-personnel mines will pose a serious risk to civilian life in Ukraine for decades to come.

In the case of the South Caucasus, it is estimated that land mines from the war have killed at least 1,400 Azerbaijanis, and 14,670 have been wounded. Two-thirds of these people are believed to be civilians, according to experts. Based on public data available by the UN and the government of Azerbaijan, 5,561 people were injured in the 2020 conflict (78% military, 22% civilian). Many of these people have been victims of landmine explosions, with estimates as high as 70% for invalids.

Croatia remains among Europe’s leading members in the fight against land mines. From 1991 when the war broke out, until this year, 2,009 people were injured in mine incidents in Croatia, with 523 deaths.

From 1996 until today, 598 mine incidents were recorded in the post-war period, of which 203 were fatal. Of these, 131 victims were de-miners, and 38 were killed.

As the EU’s newest member, Croatia is a driving force behind the EU’s anti-mine assistance and policies. It played an important role in designing the 2017 Council Decision in support of the implementation of the Maputo Action Plan, which aligns with the 1997 Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

The mindset behind the EU’s 2017 Council Decision and the UN strategy on de-mining is that mine action entails more than removing landmines from the ground. It includes efforts and civilian missions to train people, pass on best practices and render societies self-sufficient in the fight against anti-personnel mines.

That’s because mine action entails more than removing landmines from the ground. It also includes high-impact efforts to protect people from danger by helping victims become self-sufficient through community capacity-building, inter-agency cooperation and proper training.

Practical examples of inter-agency cooperation led by the EU include the €40 million initiative between the Turkish Defense Ministry, the EU and the UN Development Programme, supported by former EU Ambassador to Turkey Christian Berger. Similar programs are currently needed in Azerbaijan and soon in Ukraine while providing an effective mechanism for national de-mining agencies to cooperate with EU missions, officials, and international experts to promote sustainable inter-agency skill transfer and adequate training for communities on the ground.

Effective and sustainable de-mining efforts in Europe will depend on EU funding. But funding alone isn’t everything. The EU, through member countries like Croatia and others, will need to prioritize de-mining in the European Neighbourhood Policy while actively supporting cooperation with Eastern Partnership governments, international experts, and local communities.