The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has always been a strong advocate for an international ban on the use, production, stockpiling, sale, transfer or export of anti-personnel landmines. Nothing less than a complete international ban on landmines can prevent risks to innocent civilians.
Landmines force people to leave their houses, they hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance, they violate the human right to seek asylum and most importantly, landmines impede the solution of refugee problems through voluntary repatriation.
The mandate of UNHCR is to provide international protection to refugees and promote durable solutions to their problems. The return of refugees home is considered the most desirable durable solution. However, often this preferred solution compromises the physical integrity and the livelihood of refugees when landmines are present in the areas of origin. Internally displaced persons can also face the same problems.
The need for return "in safety and dignity" means that UNHCR cannot promote the voluntary repatriation of refugees in patently dangerous situations involving the risk of injury and death from landmines. In most situations refugees return in a spontaneous manner. Therefore, mine action, including identification of mined areas, demarking, launching of mine awareness programmes as well as early dimining are critical actions before repatriation. In these situations, concerted action is of paramount importance.
In the past few years, UNHCR has:
- been a strong advocate, at the highest level, for a total ban on landmines, supporting the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and making contributions in different fora to stress the urgency and importance of such action.
- adopted specific internal policies against anti-personnel mines, such as the boycott on purchases from companies which manufacture or sell mines or mine components. The High Commissioner announced the boycott during the International Meeting on Mine Clearance that took place in Geneva in July 1995 :
Anti-personnel mines have killed or maimed thousands of refugees. A high proportion of these innocent victims are women and children. Anti-personnel mines are a menace to millions of innocent civilians and pose a serious obstacle to the return of many refugees world-wide.
UNHCR supports a ban on anti-personnel mines. In addition, UNHCR has pledged to boycott companies that manufacture or sell mines or mine-components, either directly or through subsidiaries. UNHCR will not knowingly buy any product from such a company.
If your company submits a bid to UNHCR, it shall constitute a guarantee that neither your company, nor any affiliate or subsidiary controlled by your company, is engaged in the sale or manufacture, either directly or indirectly, of any anti-personnel mines or any component produced primarily for the operation thereof.
A contract clause confirming this will be included in every contract.
- funded minefield surveys and demarcation, where such funding has been essential to ensure timely action for people of concern. UNHCR involvement in actual mine clearance is exceptional. Bosnia, Cambodia and Kosovo, have been recent examples where UNHCR has funded demining activities.
- joined coordinated UN efforts, led by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in defining a common UN Mine Action Policy, acknowledging mandates, and establishing the contribution which every agency could bring to this common policy.
- supported the promotion and further development of international humanitarian law instruments especially related to refugees, inviting States to implement their treaty obligations and thereby accept their responsibilities.
- taken risk reduction measures. UNHCR has organised information campaigns to make refugees aware of areas of danger. It has also commissioned early reconnaissance and surveys to determine the risk to refugees and returnees posed by landmines, thereby determining the scale of programme needed to reduce the risk. In Thailand, Handicap International is implementing a mine risk education programme towards Burmese refugees and Thai populations along the Thai-Burmese border, which is heavily mined.
- ensured that mine awareness programmes were conducted in preparation for repatriation and after refugees have returned to their areas of origin. UNHCR works in partnership with UNICEF and specialised NGOs in the area of mine awareness.
- taken care of victims’ rehabilitation by financing prosthetics workshops, trauma attention and physical rehabilitation.
SOME CURRENT MINE ACTION ACTIVITIES:
UNHCR does not have an internal capability for mine action activities. However, UNHCR takes direct steps when mine action is required to ensure the safety of refugees and IDPs. During the past year UNHCR has been directly involved with mine action in three countries in order to facilitate thereintegrationof refugees who were returning or in preparation for their return:
- In Cambodia. Following the 1998 peace agreement, UNHCR’s objective has been to monitor the protection and reintegration of 47,000 returnees within their communities, and to assist returnees to reach a level of security, social integration and economic self-reliance comparable to that of communities to which they return. The danger of landmines continues to be the most serious challenge for UNHCR in Cambodia. Early in 1999, and for two consecutive years, UNHCR directly funded sub-units of the national demining agency, Cambodia Mines Action Centre (CMAC) and two demining NGOs: the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) and Halo Trust. Mine action activities (demining, surveying, marking and mine awareness) took place in the districts of Samlot, Anlong Veng and Trapaeng Prasat. Towards the end of 2000, an exercise was conducted on internal lessons learned, so as to analyse this experience and draw practical recommendations for future operations where UNHCR will have to resort to direct intervention to ensure the safety of refugees and IDPs.
- In Kosovo, following the adoption of Security Council resolution 1244 on 10 June 1999, the Yugoslav army started to withdraw from Kosovo and KFOR moved in. Many areas in Kosovo were heavily mined. Infrastructure facilities were heavily damaged. There was a massive movement of refugees who went back to secure their property. A total of 850,000 refugees returned over a period of five months, with the majority returning in the first two months. To gain access to their property they had to pass through mined areas which needed clearance as quickly as possible. On 18 July, UNHCR through its implementing partner HELP started demining activities in refugee returnee areas throughout Kosovo. Considering the importance of this activity, UNHCR decided to continue it in 2000 by contributing demining resources to the Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC). UNHCR entered into a commercial contract with Mine-Tech, Zimbabwe, for marking and mine clearance activities in 35 areas all over Kosovo. Two mine clearance teams and two mine dog detection teams were used by Mine-Tech to carry out this activity from April to September 2000. A total of 540 square kilometres of land was cleared and 252 anti-personnel mines, 40 anti-tank mines and 4 pieces of unexploded ordnance were removed. UNMACC was responsible for the quality control of all the demining team personnel and dogs. The objective was to encourage the return of population to all areas of Kosovo and the timely resumption of a normal life.
- In Thailand, along the Thailand-Myanmar border there are some 130,000 Myanmar refugees, mainly of Karen and Karenni ethnic origin, sheltered in 11 camps. A pilot landmine risk education project was initiated in Tak Province as a result of an increase in mine accidents at the border. This preventive programme, run by Handicap International, was also linked to existing rehabilitation activities in the camps. Educational tools for mine awareness are being developed with the assistance of refugee artists. A mine-risk database was configured and information-gathering interviews started both in refugee camps and in Thai villages. Women’s organisations in the camps were involved as they provide an essential community network with which to develop the programme. The programme is to be included in the camp school curriculum. The main justification of the Mine Risk Education programme being set up in refugee camps is to prepare the return of refugees to their homeland in safety.
THE WAY FORWARD:
UNHCR has an international mandate to protect refugees, but also to secure lasting solutions to their problems. UNHCR’s direct intervention on demining and other mine action activities is dictated primarily by the need to ensure the protection and safety of refugees and IDPs, as well as to allow them to regain their livelihood.
Complying with our mandate requires continuous progress in areas where the international community has been working in the past years. In particular, the challenge for UNHCR is to assist in building progressively:
- a stronger mechanism for rapid response in mine action (to respond, among other situations, to the rapid, often spontaneous and massive movements of refugees, returnees and other displaced populations). This is to be combined with a mechanism for rapid assessment. UNHCR can draw on the lessons learned from its own emergency deployment capability.
- a reliable information and coordination system available to those intervening in humanitarian mine action operations. This is crucial in the context of repatriation/reintegration operations. Often, mine action initiatives regarding refugees and returnees are undertaken directly by other partners without UNHCR’s financial involvement and/or coordination. UNHCR could contribute with direct information on those elements which often constitute its comparative advantage (e.g. field presence, access to direct information about displaced populations, its partner’s community and the refugee community)
- a quality control system widely available to ascertain that humanitarian standards are adhered to by those partners who intervene in mine action activities, either under their own funding, or commissioned by others.
- a continuous promotion of the principles of international humanitarian law and further development of legal instruments which allow effective application of those principles in coordination with Governments.
As mentioned by the High Commissioner, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, in his address to the humanitarian segment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on 13 July 2001: “UNHCR is about partnerships”. To further contribute to the process, UNHCR is fully committed to playing its part, on behalf of refugees and other people of concern, until such a time as concerted action has rid the world of the scourge of landmines. Furthermore, UNHCR continues to examine further areas where, in coordination with others, it could make a difference.