New use of landmines is posing threat to 25-year ban treaty

Ukrainian military vehicles pass mines near the village of Pesky-Radkivski, about 150km east of Kharkiv, Ukraine, 7 October 2022. The Ukrainian army pushed Russian troops from occupied territory in the northeast of the country in a counterattack. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/ATEF Safadi)

Landmines are being used again in countries including Ukraine and Myanmar, harming civilians and threatening to stall progress of the landmark Mine Ban Treaty struck 25 years ago, a flagship report warned on Thursday.

After more than a decade of “historic reductions” since the treaty came into force in 1999, casualties from landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) have been “disturbingly high” in the last seven years – with 2021 no exception, the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ (ICBL) said.

Its annual Landmine Monitor showed that at least 5,544 people were injured or killed last year from mines and other explosive remnants of war and that civilians accounted for the majority of victims – half of which were children.

Most of these occurred in conflict-hit countries riddled with improvised mines such as Syria, which is not a party to the treaty, and where the highest number of casualties (1,277) were recorded.

Landmines make a comeback

One of the most worrying trends is the new use of landmines by countries including Russia in Ukraine and Myanmar, both non-party to the treaty, Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and editor for the monitor’s ban policy team, said.

In Ukraine, civilian casualties have increased fivefold during the first nine months of 2022 compared to 202, from 58 to 277.

“The Russian Federation has used at least seven types of antipersonnel mines since its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022,” she told a press briefing in Geneva, pointing to evidence published in several reports by Human Rights Watch

“There’s also been extensive use of anti-vehicle mines by Russian forces and Ukrainian forces,” she added.  

Antipersonnel mines are designed to explode under pressure when they come into contact with a person while anti-vehicle mines, which are not covered in the treaty, are made to explode when a tank or other vehicles weighing more than 200 kilograms drive over them.

Government forces in Myanmar have also been “extensively using” antipersonnel mines, the monitor said. 

While this has been happening for several years, the authors of the report said they had seen an uptick during the period covered in its report from mid-2021 to October 2022, especially around mobile phone towers and other infrastructure such as pipelines. 

Non-state armed groups have also been using landmines in at least five countries including Colombia, Central African Republic, India, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Treaty members to meet in Geneva

The monitor, a civil society research initiative that tracks the progress of the treaty, was released ahead of the Mine Ban Treaty’s annual meeting taking place at the UN in Geneva next week under Colombia’s presidency.

The 1997 convention, which counts 164 states parties, bans the production, transfer and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines and obliges countries to assist victims of such weapons. 

Read also: World still far from mine-free, 25 years since landmark treaty

It remains one of the most widely ratified disarmament treaties, but overlapping crises, such as Covid and the war in Ukraine, combined with a reduction in humanitarian aid budgets, are exacerbating obstacles in living up to the treaty’s promises, the authors of the report said. 

“The outlook right now is challenging, as we continue to observe new mine victims, new use of the weapon, delays in mine clearance, and shrinking mine action budgets,” said Marion Loddo, the monitor’s editorial manager, added in a statement. 

“What we need now is immediate and coordinated government action,” 

United States to attend Geneva meeting

The United States is one of the 33 countries that has still not joined the treaty. However, in a positive step, the Biden administration said in June it was reversing a policy decision taken under former president Donald Trump and recommitting to limiting the use of anti-personnel landmines. 

Trump had loosened restrictions on the US military’s ability to use certain landmines, undoing a policy move taken by Barack Obama in 2014 which effectively aligned the US with the rules of the convention, even if it was still not party to it. 

Representatives from the US are expected to attend the treaty meeting next week, Wareham said. 

Landmine hoarders

One of the key parts of the treaty is the promise by countries to destroy their stockpiles of landmines. So far, more than 55 million anti-personnel mines have been destroyed since the agreement came into force in 1997. 

Only three countries have still not gotten rid of their stockpiles including Ukraine, which the monitor estimates to have 3.3 million remaining after destroying around the same number. 

The other countries are Greece, the latter which the monitor estimates to have “a couple of hundred thousand” anti-personnel mines remaining, and Tuvalu.  

“Greece has faced numerous problems in its stockpile destruction process but it seems to be overcoming them and we hope to hear more news from Greece at the treaty meeting next week,” Wareham said.

Milestone explosive weapons agreement in Dublin

Monitor release and next week’s also comes as countries gather in Dublin today to sign a long-anticipated political declaration to curb the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and protect civilians from harm. 

Seventy-five countries are expected to sign the declaration, which was finalised in Geneva in June after more than three years of negotiations. 

That’s up from 60 earlier in the week, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) said in a statement, and includes 22 NATO countries and three members of the UN Security Council - United States, United Kingdom and France. 

“This declaration sends a clear message that using explosive weapons in populated areas causes unacceptable civilian suffering and devastation and must stop,” said Laura Boillot, INEW Coordinator.

“It is time for all states to endorse and implement the declaration to help civilians and their communities during and after conflict.”