By Louise Sarsfield Collins
Last month a cannon ball from the Spanish Armada washed up on a beach in Sligo. This munition dating from the 1500s was still intact although happily, without a cannon to fire it, not particularly dangerous to handle.
It got me thinking however about more modern explosive remnants of war (ERW) that litter many countries across the globe. On a recent trip to Cambodia I visited the Landmine Museum outside Siem Reap which houses thousands of decommissioned landmines, cluster bombs and other ERW. Seeing these rusty bombs and sub-munitions up close, I could see just how easy it would be to accidentally set one off in a field while working or how a curious child might pick up this new object to see what it was.
The problem with land mines and other ERW is that they last long after the conflict is over, they are a menace that never goes away.
In neighbouring Laos at least 270 million cluster sub-munitions were dropped on the country between 1963 and 1972. Tens of millions of them failed to detonate. Over 20,000 Laotians have been maimed or killed by cluster sub-munitions since the official end of the war in 1973.
About 80 per cent of the country’s 6.8 million citizens are subsistence farmers, which means that thousands of them daily are farming land dangerously contaminated with cluster sub-munitions and other unexploded ordnance. Globally, over 50,000 people have lost limbs or lives in the past decade to these weapons. Saturday April 4 is International Day for Mine Awareness, a day to not only remember victims – and the existing dangers – but also to prevent further weapons contamination.
LAW OF ARMED CONFLICT
International humanitarian law (IHL) or the ‘law of armed conflict’ aims for humanitarian reasons to limit the effects of armed conflict. IHL does not allow the use of weapons that cause the most appalling or unnecessary suffering, and it prohibits tactics that cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment. Conventions such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines are two important instruments of international law in this regard. These treaties include obligations for States to clear their territories of mines.
The Red Cross Movement works on ERW in two ways: first, working with victims in medical and rehabilitation programmes; important for giving people back their dignity. Second, in the area of prevention though de-mining and mine-awareness education. This is key to minimising future victims until we have cleared the millions of ERW that pollute the world. In Mozambique, African pouch rats are used to sniff out landmines. It is hoped that demining operations will be completed in the country by 2015 – a significant achievement in this once heavily mine-affected country but in other places ERW will remain a substantial threat for years to come.
In late 2013 and early 2014 the ICRC sent five photographers to five countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Laos, Mozambique and Nicaragua – to document the human toll exacted by mines and other ERW. These images capture both the dedicated work of those involved in clearance operations and the anguish and resilience of survivors.