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Aiming for a mine-free Sri Lanka

8 April 2014 06:46 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


In his speech on April 4 for the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed on the importance of involving women in the global drive to ‘clear landmines and protect against their indiscriminate effects’. He highlighted on the importance of overcoming gender barriers not only with concern to clearing landmines but also on educating people on how to live safely in contaminated areas and assisting victims.

Female de-miners in Sri Lanka have made a significant contribution in clearing the ‘death fields’ that were spread across the Northern peninsula and just last week, Sri Lanka Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya in a press conference stated that over 1 million landmines had been unearthed so far in the de-mining process and the total area to be demined had been reduced to 82 square km.

Does mine action exclusively refer to demining? Does the end of the demining process mark the conclusion of the mine action programme as well? What sectors should Sri Lanka focus on in the future with concern to the sustainability of the mine action programme?  

Initial challenges

Since 2009, nine organisations both local and international non-governmental as well as the Sri Lanka Army Humanitarian Demining Unit had engaged in the surveying and clearance procedures of the demining process.
“The initial assessment confirmed some 2064 square km of land as ‘hazardous areas’ spread over all five districts in the North,” says Sri Lanka Mine Action Chairman, Monty Ranatunga.

He says the entire process that has cost close to 103 million USD so far, was quite challenging at its inception due to the inability to obtain information to proceed in carrying out non-technical surveys to determine hazardous areas.
“Due to the absence of human life in conflict zones, procuring information was the primary challenge. However, with the military support we were able to kick-start the programme with some rough data that came in handy in surveying the lands.”

Among other challenges he recalls is the lack of non-state actors as well as equipment for mechanical clearance. “Initially it was only a few governmental organisations but quite soon the non-governmental establishments joined in. We used manual methods and mine-detecting dogs to unearth and detect the mines. Mechanical clearance was not used until a few weeks into the inception of the programme since the first two mine-flail machines had to be airlifted to the affected areas,” Mr. Ranatunga adds.

HALO Trust is one of the main nine establishments that have assisted in Sri Lanka’s mine clearance process since 2002. It is the largest international demining organisation in the country and equips over 1,100 locally recruited staff under their employment.

Looking for needles in a haystack

HALO Sri Lanka Programme Manager, Stanislav Damjanovic speaking to the Daily Mirror said since 2002, HALO has cleared 8.9 square kilometres (8,902,292m²) to which includes the removal of 175,604 anti-personnel mines, 704 anti-tank mines and 57,515 unexploded ordnance and ammunition.
HALO Trust is presently engaged in clearance processes in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. But Stanislav says one of the most challenging areas to clear was the Muhamalai-Nagarkovil Forward Defence Line. “This area is over 15 square kms, with a lot of metal debris that limits the use of metal detectors, making the clearance process slower. In addition, the area also contains a large number of improvised explosive devices and booby-traps making it more dangerous in comparison with most of the other minefields in Sri Lanka,” he says.

HALO has so far removed over 37,000 mines from these areas alone and Stanislav adds that there is a lot of work to be done. But for the moment they are mostly focused on clearing the areas for resettlement, livelihoods, agriculture land and land for the development projects.
Speaking of the challenges HALO Trust faced in their work in Sri Lanka, Stanislav says it was particularly the rapid expansion of their capacities to adequately respond to the need for clear land so that the IDPs could be resettled. “It was a combination of survey, clearance, recruitment and training of the large number of locally recruited people, all happening at the same time. With the very hard work of our staff and the support of the Sri Lankan government, this was achieved. Our main challenge remains to keep the current capacity on the same level in order to complete the demining activities as soon as possible,” he adds.

Still a long way to go

By 2013 the total number of known casualties was 21,993 with 47 casualties inclusive of five deaths reported in 2012. This is a significantly lower number in comparison to countries such as Afghanistan where 544 were killed in 2012 alone. But, there is still a long way for Sri Lanka to go in order to holistically address the mine action programmes. As Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor - Country Researcher for Sri Lanka, Vidya Abhayagunawardena points out, mine action branches out into five main pillars which include demining, mine-risk education, victim assistance programmes, stock pile destruction and advocacy.

“Addressing mine action effectively is not simply the completion of a technical process but an integral part of the reconciliation programme in Sri Lanka,” says Mr. Abhayagunawardena, adding that it should be remembered that these victim-activated weapons not only leave physical but also psychological trauma on a nation and its people.

For a country that suffered a three-decade war and is systematically healing from its scars, it is startling to find that Sri Lanka is still not a state party to the Ottawa Treaty. Although Sri Lanka has voted in favour of every Mine Ban Treaty resolution since 1997, Sri Lanka has not signed or acceded to any disarmament treaty since 2004.
He points out that Sri Lanka has a strong case due to refraining from producing landmines as opposed to the LTTE and adds that even the local demining and mine risk education programmes are on an excellent level. “This is why Sri Lanka was able to keep the number of victims to a minimum in the post-conflict period,” Vidya says. “However, it is important that Sri Lanka realises the significance of being a state party to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.
“It is disappointing that taking action to ban mines was not even part of the LLRC recommendations that was mandated to issue recommendations that would aid in gearing Sri Lanka towards a speedy reconciliation process,” he adds.

Improving victim assistance programmes

Furthermore, mine action campaigners also highlight the importance of Sri Lanka addressing all five pillars of mine action instead of focusing exclusively on the demining process alone. The Sri Lanka Campaign to Ban Landmines Coordinator, Prasanna Kuruppu says increased government support is required particularly in victim assistance programmes, pointing out that the existing programmes were not adequate in reaching all those in need.

Sri Lanka offers a wide range of victim assistance programmes to landmine victims through the Social Services Ministry and the Health Ministry. However, Mr. Kuruppu says the lack of coordination between the two Ministries has resulted in a majority of individuals who are in dire need of the assistance programmes falling through the cracks.

“Although certain countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia and Laos offer specific programmes dedicated to landmine victims, Sri Lanka absorbs them into the mainstream victim assistance programmes. This I perceive in a positive light as it assists in psychological healing and reintegration of the victimised individuals without segregating them,” Mr. Kuruppu said.

He however adds that state support is lacking in several key areas of victim assistance, pointing out the need for a state-sponsored programme to provide prosthetic limbs. “Presently, only a few non-governmental organisations such as the Jaffna Jaipur Centre, Handicap International in the North and East and the Friend in Need Society in Colombo provide prosthetic limbs. The only national programme is carried out by the Ragama Rehabilitation Hospital. Providing sufficient victim assistance programmes are a grave responsibility that should be undertaken by the state.”

According to Mr. Kuruppu, the Health Ministry intervenes only during the immediate aftermath of an incident and there are no programmes to carry out follow-ups on the patients’ wellbeing; rehabilitation, psychological healing and reintegration into the society. Continuous medical attention and physiotherapy which are two essential factors in treating an individual obtaining prosthetic limbs, he says, are not adequately addressed through the  Health Ministry programme.   
The rough cost of a prosthetic limb is said to range between Rs. 15, 000 to 250,000. Due to the high costs involved, Mr. Kuruppu says there are many who are deprived of the option. Access to disability services such as loan schemes and self-employment grants should improve.

He also highlights the importance of offering alternative vocational programmes for those disabled due to accidents involving landmines, adding that special focus should be shed on mine-risk education programmes. “It is of paramount importance that residents of risky areas or its vicinities are given special awareness on emergency medical care as well as on how to respond immediately if an unfortunate accident occurs,” he added.  

Millions of people in nearly 80 countries live in fear of landmines and explosive remnants of war as they prey on lives, limbs and livelihoods. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said landmines were among the most ‘barbaric weapons’ that not only lay buried in silence waiting to kill or maim innocent women and children but the mere fear of its presence can bring human life to a standstill. In their struggle for survival, the state’s primary responsibility is ensuring and improving the safety of its people. Therefore, it is time the government of Sri Lanka moved beyond the primary responsibility of clearing the lands of these deadly weapons but made a pledge before the international community to safeguard its citizens from this lethal menace.

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