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Vicious killer

Published : Sep 09, 2011 00:00 IST

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Security personnel inspect defused anti-personnel mines recovered from areas on the outskirts of Vavuniya formerly controlled by the LTTE, in August 2009.-SANATH PRIYANTHA/AP

Security personnel inspect defused anti-personnel mines recovered from areas on the outskirts of Vavuniya formerly controlled by the LTTE, in August 2009.-SANATH PRIYANTHA/AP

The landmine is a morally outlawed weapon, and it is time now for Sri Lanka to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty.

SRI LANKA'S protracted internal conflict, which lasted for three decades, ended in May 2009, but landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) continue to kill or injure both people and animals. The country is now struggling to unearth an estimated 1.3 million landmines.

Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor (LCMM), a programme providing research and monitoring for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), reported a total of 21,993 landmine-related casualties in Sri Lanka since the 1980s, including 1,419 civilian returnees. From 1999 to the end of 2009 the casualty figure was 1,310, including 123 killed, 453 injured and 734 unknown.

The National Strategy for Mine Action in Sri Lanka 2010, a strategy paper drafted by the Sri Lanka National Mine Action Centre (SLNMAC) for the Ministry of Economic Development (MED), mentions that the current level of de-mining will have to be maintained for approximately 10 years in order to clear all the land in the North and the East and achieve a mine-free Sri Lanka. This will need enhanced human, financial and material resources. According to the Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA), the United Nations-approved standard for information systems relating to de-mining, as of March 31, 2011, about 494 square kilometres remain to be cleared.

Sri Lanka has not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) or the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). In 2009, it voted in favour of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 64/56, which calls for the universalisation of the MBT just as it has done every year since 1996. Further, Sri Lanka provided a voluntary Article 7 report in 2005, sharing information on anti-personnel mines and known contamination and numbers of casualties. However, at that time it did not reveal data on stockpiles but subsequently indicated that it would provide an update. In December 2008, an official told the ICBL that owing to the security situation and other priorities Sri Lanka was not in a position to provide an update but would endeavour to submit a report, including information on stockpiles, during 2009.

Sri Lanka is neither a States Party to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) nor a signatory of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Protocol V. (It is a signatory of the CCW and has signed Amended Protocol II on landmines and booby-traps but not Protocol V on ERW.) Sri Lanka is also not a party to the CCM.

Concerted attempts are being made to disseminate to the people information on the risks of explosive devices and advocate a ban of landmines and cluster munitions. The importance of the CCW Protocol V on ERW is also highlighted as part of the initiative, which includes the destruction of mines in the control of any paramilitary group and a ban on the use of trap-guns.

Sri Lanka is yet to produce its first transparency report as a signatory of the CCW and its Protocol II (report to the Annual Conference of State Parties to the protocol). The Ministry of External Affairs and its relevant U.N. division should be supported fully to produce the relevant reports in a timely manner, and a permanent mechanism emplaced to fulfil reporting requirements.

At a seminar on International law and landmine and explosive remnants of war held in Colombo on October 27, 2009, Sri Lanka Army chief Lt. General Jagath Jayasuriya stated:

[We are] Poised to realise the vision of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is also the dream of each and every citizen of Sri Lanka. We have to think, and act as one people, one nation to achieve lasting peace and stability in our country. In reaching towards our goal, I wish to thank the organisers of this seminar for the timely initiative taken by them to familiarise the key stakeholders in the government regarding the Anti-personnel Mine Convention and other related instruments such as the CCW Convention Protocol II on Mines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Enhanced awareness and knowledge of these instruments, I am sure, would contribute positively towards the stabilisation process.

The common theme linking all these above instruments is the humanitarian consideration arising from indiscriminate use where victims are concerned. As an example, it is well-known that anti-personnel mines are considered victim activated weapons'. This means that the use of the weapon is triggered by the victim and not by the aggressor. This has far-reaching implications of a humanitarian nature. In the current post-conflict phase in Sri Lanka, it is timely that we focus our attention on the international legal instruments that limit or ban certain weapons based on humanitarian grounds.

The Sri Lanka Army in its operational role in the last three decades has witnessed the terrible human cost of their indiscriminate use by the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], resulting in loss of life and limb causing untold suffering to innocent civilians. I am sure that each one of us is eagerly looking forward to the day that our island nation would be a mine-free country, which I am sure is within our grasp and we do certainly hope such a day would dawn in the near future ( Daily News, October 28, 2009).

From the above statement it is clear that the Army commander extends his fullest support towards acceding to the MBT.

According to the LCMM report, there is no evidence that the Sri Lanka government ever produced or exported anti-personnel mines, but it has a stockpile whose current size and composition are not known. The LTTE had manufactured, used and stored mines in large quantities.

Mine Action Programme

Four of the five pillars of mine action are being addressed in Sri Lanka's mine action programme, including de-mining, mine risk education (MRE), victim assistance and advocacy. Stockpile destruction is yet to be addressed. The de-mining operation, a high-cost, high-risk, time-consuming and painstaking process, is currently being implemented by local and foreign mine action operators, including the Humanitarian De-mining Unit of the Sri Lanka Army.

In 2010, the government spent Rs(SL) 1,350 million and non-governmental organisations and others spent Rs(SL) 2,346 million. Australia, the United States, India, Japan, China, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration are among those who have helped in a big way in the implementation of the government's de-mining programme. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) helped in coordination and quality management and in providing the necessary expertise and technical assistance.

At present there are nine de-mining operators working in the war-affected areas in Sri Lanka. The international operators include the Danish De-mining Group, Foundation Suisse de Dminage (FSD), The HALO Trust, Horizon, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Sarvarta, and the local de-mining operators are the Milinda Moragoda Institute for People's Empowerment, Devlon Assistance for Social Harmony and the SLA-Humanitarian De-mining Unit (HDU). Risk education activities are being carried out by the Ministry of Education, the SLA-HDU and five national NGOs, (Community Trust Fund, EHED Caritas, Rural Development Foundation, Sarvodaya and the Social Organisation for Development) and one international NGO, Internews.

One of the main objectives identified in the 2010 strategy paper is to mobilise funds from national and international sources in order to achieve the mine action goal. This will be a major challenge for the mine action programme to achieve its goal of a mine-free Sri Lanka by the end of 2020. The government and various international and domestic organisations are engaged in providing a variety of facilities for mine victims, including MRE, medical treatment, psycho-social care such as counselling and rehabilitation for survivors, and livelihood development programmes. But insufficient funding has meant shortages in the delivery of these programmes and their sustainability itself in the long run.

The SLNMAC plans to prepare a national victim-assistance strategy to help coordinate work among stakeholders and provide technical support for strategising efforts.

A review of the issues relating to landmines suggests strongly that Sri Lanka should accede to the MBT. This action would demonstrate a commitment to the mine action programme and its sustainability. In addition, the country will benefit in terms of international cooperation and assistance.

Article 6 of the MBT mentions that the state party to the MBT will receive international cooperation and assistance such as the following:

State party has the right to seek and receive assistance, where feasible, from other state parties to the extent possible. Each state party undertakes to facilitate and shall have the right to participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, material and scientific and technological information concerning the implementation of this Convention. The state parties shall not impose undue restriction on the provision of mine clearance equipment and related technological information for humanitarian purposes.

Each state party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for the care and rehabilitation, and social and economic reintegration, of mine victims and for mine awareness programmes. Such assistance may be provided, inter alia, through the United Nations system, international, regional or national organisations or institutions, the International Committee of the Red Cross, national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and their international federation, non-governmental organisations, or on a bilateral basis.

Each state party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for mine clearance and related activities. Such assistance may be provided, inter alia, through the United Nations system, international or regional organisations or institutions, non-governmental organisations or institutions, or on a bilateral basis, or by contributing to the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Assistance in Mine Clearance, or other regional funds that deal with de-mining.

Each state party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for the destruction of stockpiled anti-personnel mines.

Each state party undertakes to provide information to the database on mine clearance established within the United Nations system, especially information concerning various means and technologies of mine clearance, and list of experts, expert agencies or national point of contact on mine clearance.

State parties may request the United Nations, regional organisations, other state parties or other competent intergovernmental or non-governmental agencies to assist its authorities in the elaboration of a national de-mining programme to determine, inter alia: a) The extent and scope of the anti-personnel mine; b) The financial, technological and human resources that are required for the implementation of the programme; c) The estimated number of years necessary to destroy anti-personnel mines in mined areas under the jurisdiction or control of the concerned state party; d) Mine awareness activities to reduce the incidence of mine-related injuries or deaths; e) Assistance to mine victims; f) The relationship between the government of the concerned state party and the relevant governmental, inter-governmental or non-governmental entities that will work in the implementation of the programme.

Each state party giving and receiving assistance under the provision of this Article shall cooperate with a view to ensuring the full and prompt implementation of agreed assistance programmes.

Campaign against mines

The strategy paper mentions the SLCBL, the advocacy forum that was in place from 2003 to 2006 and produced considerable results. Attempts to launch a new SLCBL have resulted in some impressive events. The new SLCBL started its work in May 2011 for a four-month period with the approval of the NMAC and the support of UNICEF. During this period the SLCBL aims to develop an advocacy strategy and get launched officially so as to broaden its membership and gain the support of grass-roots-level workers and senior decision-makers, including those in government bodies, the security forces and civil society groups.

The strategy paper says that Sri Lanka is making progress towards banning landmines in the country and its commitment to acceding to the MBT, which will guarantee that landmines will not be possessed or used in the future. The SLCBL will work to support and enhance this progress.

A ban on landmines in Sri Lanka will guarantee that this victim-activated vicious weapon will not be used to contaminate the island again; that the rights of the victims of landmines are respected and their needs fully addressed; that stockpiles of landmines are destroyed; and that ultimately innocent civilians and animals will no longer lose their lives or limbs to this hidden killer.

According to UNICEF, landmines and unexploded ordnance violate nearly all the articles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC): a child's right to life, to a safer environment in which to play, to health, to clean water, to sanitary conditions and to adequate education. Nobody should oppose the ban of this weapon in Sri Lanka the landmine is a morally outlawed weapon and should never be used again.

Vidya Abhayagunawardena, is a Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor Country Researcher-Sri Lanka and a researcher in socio-economic development.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 09, 2011.)

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