Fewer land mines are being laid down today than in recent decades, but huge numbers of them remain in the ground in postconflict countries around the world. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel spoke to Guy Willoughby, co-founder of the HALO Trust, a humanitarian organization clearing mines in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and other countries.
RFE/RL: You say there is some good news regarding land mines: many fewer are being laid down by armies in conflicts today than in previous decades. Why is that?
There are very, very few land mines being laid at the moment anywhere in the world, and certainly nothing like the numbers that were laid in the '80s or the '90s. You must remember that land mines -- antipersonnel mines -- are normally laid by armies that are on their back foot and facing defeat. They are laid by armies which have run out of troops or don't have enough troops to defend their key strategic points. So, in the past, they laid antipersonnel mines as "soldiers that never sleep and don't need feeding."
Perhaps why there are fewer being laid now is that there are less of these big conflicts going on with relatively static armies, one army facing another army, where one of the armies has far fewer troops and therefore lays land mines. That is not the style currently of warfare in the last five to 10 years, on a global basis.
RFE/RL: What about the way governments think about land mines? Is that changing? We see that 80 percent of the world's countries have agreed to be bound by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, yet mines are still being produced.
I think one of the successes of the Mine Ban Treaty was a stigmatization of land mines, accepting that in a postconflict situation the civilians have their lives heavily impacted by land mines because land mines take so long to clear. If you want to bring a country back to normality after a conflict, then it is much, much easier to do that if there are no land mines.
There has been very good progress because some of the major mine manufacturers, such as the Italians, who manufactured and exported a very large number of land mines, are no longer doing so. So there have been good successes.
RFE/RL: None of the world's biggest military powers has signed the Mine Ban Treaty, but they take quite different approaches to the land-mine problem. The United States bans the export of land mines, while Russia and China do not. As your organization cleans up after conflicts, where do you see most of the land mines coming from?
: If one looks at the tens of thousands of mines that the HALO Trust clears every year, most of those mines originate from Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan.
RFE/RL: In many postconflict countries, huge numbers of mines remain in the ground. What kind of numbers are we talking about worldwide?
In most [postconflict] countries, we are probably talking tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands. There will be one or two places that probably still have a million land mines. There will be a million land mines to still clear on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, and there may still be a million mines left on the Cambodia-Thai border from the mine belt laid there in the 1970s and '80s.
RFE/RL: People in postconflict countries must wonder why their own governments or military don't make removing mines a bigger priority. Why is there a need for outside organizations like yours to do much of the work?
One must bear in mind that most of these countries have had appalling conflicts and are going through their own postconflict reconstruction phase. Their demands on their funding are for building hospitals [and] schools, clearing land mines, infrastructure tasks, water supplies, agriculture, etc., so they have a huge demand for funding.
It's not necessarily the case that reconstructed armies are good at demining. They tend to have so many other priorities. So the HALO Trust model of employing either ex-soldiers or ex-combatants or reintegrated or rural folk trying to earn a living while their land is cleared of land mines, that model does work very well and is welcomed by the governments of Angola, Mozambique, Kosovo, and so on.
WATCH: A Bosnian land-mine survivor tells his story