The presence and legacy of landmines is a human rights issue: why the UN human rights system should engage in driving progress towards a mine-free world

by Amalia Ordóñez Vahí, Researcher, URG Thematic human rights issues

On the 4th of April, as has been the case every year since the adoption of General Assembly resolution 60/97 in December 2005, the world observes the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. This year, the annual commemoration comes at a time of multiple anniversaries – the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the Mine Ban Convention, and the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Oslo Action Plan, which set out a roadmap to implement the Convention. 2024 is also the fifth anniversary of Security Council resolution 2475, which focuses on the rights of persons with disabilities in contexts of conflict and humanitarian crises, and their inclusion in peacebuilding efforts.

Once a conflict ends, its enduring impacts go beyond the casualties and destruction caused during hostilities. Often, explosive ordnance is left behind, on occasions for decades, turning former battlefields into deadly minefields. The presence of explosive ordnance around communities constitutes a ‘terrifying legacy’ of conflict, not only because of their lethal risks, but also because their presence across lands, paths, forests, infrastructure, and other surrounding areas directly undermines the rebuilding of societies post-conflict and their ability to restore social and economic activities.

According to the Landmine Monitor Report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), in 2022 there were 4,710 casualties of anti-personnel landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), 85% of whom were civilians, including 1,171 children. The ‘crux of the problem’ of landmines, as Jody Williams, founder of the ICBL, highlighted in her 1997 Nobel Prize speech, is their indiscriminate nature: they don’t distinguish between a soldier, a child, or any other civilian; they are ‘the perfect soldier,’ one that goes on killing once the war has ended.

What are the human rights implications of landmines?

Due partly to that indiscriminate nature, anti-personnel mines and other explosive ordnance have critical and long-lasting negative implications for a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, physical security, physical and mental health, food, safe drinking water, employment, and education.

​​Men and boys represent the large majority of victims of landmines (84% of recorded casualties in 2022); however, when directly impacted by landmines, women are less likely to survive and get timely care. As indirect victims, they are unable to collect food or water for the household and undertake care duties. Children are also uniquely vulnerable to the risks of mines and ERW, as they may encounter them in playing fields or on their way to school, and may mistake their colourful appearance for toys. There is also a clear link between mines and explosive ordnance and the rights of persons with disabilities, not just because these devices are a major cause of disabilities, but also because of the distinct support their victims need in terms of physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and care, access to employment and education opportunities, and redress. Indeed, mine victims were among the main advocates for the development of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which today remains a powerful mechanism to protect their rights.

While the most obvious effect of landmines is when they kill or maim, thus directly impacting the rights to life and health, they can also have indirect impacts on the concomitant rights to an adequate standard of living, liberty and security. The presence of landmines is a major disruptor of communities’ living conditions and freedom of movement, especially for persons with disabilities, who face extreme mobility challenges in contaminated areas, but also for refugees and internally displaced persons, whose return to their areas of origin may be hindered by the presence of ERW along the routes. In some cases, landmines have been deliberately used as de facto containment tools – for instance, in Myanmar in 2017, security forces planted mines along the border with Bangladesh to prevent Rohingya refugees from returning to Myanmar.

Mines and ERW also hold a direct link with the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Their presence in the soil can cause land and soil degradation, water contamination, and biodiversity loss. Additionally, climate change-related phenomena bring increased risks: floods and landslides (as has happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina) may unearth and displace landmines, while munition stockpiles may explode due to heatwaves.

There is a critical link between mine action and the achievement of the SDGs, namely SDG16, on peace, justice, and strong institutions (as mine action and redress can prevent further violence), but also SDGs 3 (health), 4 (education), 5 (gender equality), and 8 (economic growth). Land release and clearance, awareness campaigns, and victim support can promote the recovery and resilience of both affected communities and ecosystems by enabling affected communities to access essential services such as healthcare and education; improving food security; promoting gender equality by enabling girls’ access to education and employing women in mine action; and supporting communities’ economic development by enabling access to natural resources. Thus, the 2030 Agenda can be a unifying framework for policymakers and organisations from both the mine action and sustainable development spheres. Consequently, given the vital link between SDGs and human rights, all three realms can act as mutual catalysts for action and progress.

What role is there for the international human rights system?

While the Mine Ban Convention asserts victims’ right to ‘assistance for care and rehabilitation, and social and economic reintegration,’ and the Oslo Declaration calls for the ‘full, equal and effective participation of mine victims in society,’ in practice, the world has a long way to go before the threat of landmines to human lives and rights has been completely eliminated, and the rights of victims fully upheld.

That is why the international human rights system and States’ obligations under international human rights law are so important, and they can and should inform mine policy and action. This includes the development of victim rehabilitation programmes covering employment, psychosocial, and medical assistance; reintegration schemes for returning IDPs; safe access to schools and risk education and awareness-raising campaigns, particularly focusing on women and children; and the planning and conduct of demining activities. Applying a rights-based approach to humanitarian demining would also encompass the duty to realise the right of victims to remedy and redress.

The legacy of landmines is particularly acute in developing countries, including Least Developed Countries – according to the 2023 Landmine Monitor, out of the 51 States and areas with casualties from mines and ERW, 20 were in Sub-Saharan Africa, 10 in the Middle East and North Africa, and 11 in Eastern and south Asia and the Pacific. In light of this, the duty of international cooperation enshrined in international human rights law can be instrumental in mobilising efforts to address the human rights implications of mines. Such cooperation can take the form of funding for redress schemes, and collaborating in the removal of landmines, for example by sharing maps, or marking and fencing across borders.

At the recent 55th session of the Human Rights Council, URG, together with a group of NGOs (GICHD, ICBL, Implementation Support Unit of the Mine Ban Convention, Institut International pour les Droits et le Développement, Save the Children, and Youth Parliament for SDG) delivered a joint statement calling for further work and discussions around the issue at the Council, including through the eventual adoption of a resolution on the subject. Given the human rights implications of landmines and the potential impacts that mine action can have on the promotion and protection of human rights and the achievement of the SDGs, it is imperative that the international human rights machinery be mobilised to inform demining and victim support efforts.

Photo credit: Minefield at Ta Phraya in Sa Kaew province, Mary Wareham

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