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SL becomes State Party to Mine Ban Treaty, strengthens reconciliation

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With Sri Lanka becoming a State Party to the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) as the 163rd country, Sri Lankan armed forces gave an assurance to the world that they no longer possess or use landmines and anti-personnel mines and will not do so in the future, Sri Lanka Campaign to Ban Landmines (SLCBL) Coordinator and Sri Lanka Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor Country Researcher Vidya Abhayagunawardena said.

“In Sri Lanka, the LTTE introduced landmines and various Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in the 30-year war and the military used them only around their camps to prevent LTTE infiltration as a defensive weapon. However, over 80% of the landmine victims during a war are innocent civilians and in a post-war country nearly 100% mine victims are again civilians. This is why landmines and other such deadly devices should not be used,” he said.

In an interview with Daily FT, Abhaya-gunawardena explained about the SLCBL’s nearly two-decade-long lobby to get Sri Lanka to become a state party to the disarmament convention, why and how disarmament is important to Sri Lanka in its post-war scenario, and the benefits of becoming a State Party to the MBT.

“The Sri Lankan military, which became victorious on 19 May 2009, is the best example to prove that landmines are not effective in a war. They fought their last battles in heavily mine-laden lands in the north and this may be the one of the largest mine-fields in the world in recent times. These deadly devices couldn’t prevent them getting into the LTTE territories and destroying the LTTE camps with heavily mine-contaminated surroundings,” Abhayagunawardena said.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:


By Shanika Sriyananda

Q: In December2017, Sri Lanka became the 163rd State Party to the Mine Ban Treaty. Could you explain this treaty in a nutshell?

A: It is widely known as the Ottawa Convention, which was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in March 1999. The MBT commits to: never use antipersonnel mines, nor to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer them and destroy mines in their stockpiles within four years, clear all mined areas in their territory within 10 years, in mine-affected countries, conduct mine risk education and ensure the exclusion of civilians from mined areas, provide assistance for the care and rehabilitation, and social and economic reintegration of mine victims.

Q: How does a country that is party to the MBT get support?

A: There are 164 State Parties, including Sri Lanka, to the MBT now and this includes the entire European Union (EU), developed Commonwealth member states and other developed nations around the world. The State of Palestine became a State Party on 29 December 2017 after we entered into the MBT. The world should be thankful that these nations support banning this weapon and support a mine-free world. Since a country became a member of the MBT, its military should not use, produce or stockpile such weapons. They had no security-related issues protecting their land borders or military installations due to non-use of AP mines.

Q: But there are countries which didn’t sign the MBT due to security threats; how effective is this treaty without those major players like India, China and the US?

A: Yes, only 32 states remain outside the MBT. The biggest stockpiles of AP landmines are held by China, Russia, the United States, India and Pakistan and a small group of countries that still continue producing AP landmines, including India, Myanmar, Pakistan and South Korea. They are not State Parties to the Treaty as they keep stockpiles that collectively accounted for over 50 million landmines. They will not be able to get profit by selling those stockpiles as two-third of the nations in the world are now State Parties to the MBT.

The US, China, Russia, India and Pakistan argue that they are not State Parties to the MBT as they have to protect their borders with AP mines. The US has confirmed that they use AP mines in Korean borders only. This will not undermine their ambition to become a world military power or regional power when they ban inhuman and indiscriminate weapons such as AP mines. 

War-affected countries like Afghanistan acceded to both the MBT and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) and became exemplary to the world. Adhering to important humanitarian disarmament conventions, they also have border armed conflicts but refused to use such weapons. In the post-war scenario, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to use landmines and AP mines to protect the land or military bases. 

Q: During the 30-year war in Sri Lanka, the LTTE was the major user of landmines and AP mines to attack the Sri Lankan military. What is your assessment?

A: When it comes to landmine, both the security forces and the LTTE used them. While the LTTE was producing landmines in the country, the Sri Lankan military had imported these devices from other countries to use within their camps but not outside the camps. The Sri Lankan military used mines as a defensive method but the LTTE used it as an offensive method.

Q: The military has maps of the mines that they laid during the war.

A: At the height of the war, during the final phases of the war, it was very difficult to lay mines according to maps. What we have found was there are two or three layers of mines in those areas where heavy fighting took place as both held land time to time and both had laid mines several times to protect their military bases or territories. Those mines are accumulated in those areas and demining has become a tedious task due to this reason.   

The Sri Lankan military laid landmines to protect camps from the LTTE attacks but under humanitarian laws no country can use landmines to protect its military bases located where civilians are living. The use of landmines violates all humanitarian laws and also human rights laws, regardless of who did it. 

It is also directly violates the Child Rights Convention (CRC) which Sri Lanka has ratified. Again, it also violates the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which we are a signatory to since 2007 and ratified on 9 February 2016. 

The LTTE introduced three inhumane war tactics – suicide bombers, child soldiers and landmines – in its Eelam wars, but Sri Lankan military used landmines as a defensive measure. 

As I said earlier, no country can use landmines to protect their military bases and even India, China, Pakistan, Russia and the US, which have not signed the MBT, use mines to protect their borders, where there is zero human population. They know the consequences of having mines around their camps because during floods mines are washed away, causing damage to people in villages. Soon after the war ended, it happened in Sri Lanka where some of the mines had washed away to the newly-resettled villages. 

In 2014, UNICEF reported that since 1980s there were over 22,177 casualties due to AP mines or Explosive Remnants of War (EPW) including 1,603 civilian casualties. However, from 2006 to 2009, accurate casualty information was difficult to access due to the ongoing conflict. 

The LTTE produced AP mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in their own factories and used them extensively during the war.

Q: Do you think that the use of landmines helped in the war as a defensive measure?

A: No, never. Sri Lanka can teach an important lesson to the world to say that landmines are not a successful defensive weapon in any war. We know that the last stages of the war took place in one of the world largest minefields, laid by the LTTE. Sri Lankan security forces were able to continue their military thrust into LTTE-dominated areas over these mine-laden fields and ended the 30-year war in May 2009. This proved that mines are no longer effective as a defensive weapon.

The second best example for its ineffectiveness was the Mullaitivu debacle in 1996, where the highly-protected military camp in Mullaitivu was run over by the LTTE. Mines were laden around the camp for its protection but the LTTE fully destroyed the camp. These two examples show that mines are of no use as a defensive weapon.  

Q: How effective have humanitarian demining activities been since 2002?

A: Since 2002, the Sri Lankan Government commenced humanitarian demining programs with the support of the international community. It has a holistic approach with five pillars which make the entire process successful. Mine Action in Sri Lanka includes all activities to reduce the social, economical and environmental impact of mines and Explosive Remnants of War. This holistic process of humanitarian demining covers the five pillars – demining, mine risk education, victim assistance, stockpile destruction, and advocacy. 

Q: What is the progress made in demining in the north and the east so far?

A: When it comes to demining, according to the National Mine Action Program, we have cleared over 2,324 square km and the remaining land to be cleared for mines and other explosives are only 25 square km. Compared to any other country, Sri Lanka’s demining story is a huge success story as we have completed demining over 2,300 square km within eight years. Soon after ending the war the international community gave a lot of support to Sri Lanka’s demining program.

Q: Sri Lanka has set its own target to make the country free of mines by 2020. Do you think it is an achievable target?

A: It’s a very ambitious target set by the Government. But it is a very difficult task as the remaining lands are highly contaminated with mines as the final battles were fought in these areas. Some countries, which have similar battlefields, are still engaged in demining activities and they have enough resources and finances as well. Sri Lanka to embark on this target needs the support of the international community. Now we have stepped into the real mine fields and we could clear only three sqkm last year. No maps are available and there are three to four layers of mines.

Q: You said Sri Lanka needs international funding to meet the 2020 target to become a mine-free country?

A: Yes, we need the support of the international community, from countries which are willing to support our cause. Nobody knows how many mines are there and how much money we have to spend to complete the entire demining process. It will take $ 8-10 to produce a mine but it takes more than $ 1,000 to clear a mine. Although we have high-tech demining machines, in most of the places we need to remove mines manually to ensure safety. It is a tedious and costly task.

We made huge progress in demining soon after ending the war, partly because we had the support of the international community. However, during the previous Government, the doors were shut for the international community and some of INGOs engaged in demining activities were asked to stop their work.

The reason is the most of the top officials and the politicians in this country are unaware about the importance of disarmament. It is now a neglected subject even though we were the champions of disarmament some time ago. We had a good image thanks to the hard work done by top foreign diplomat C.J. Weeramantry.

During the war and also in the post war era the previous Government was not serious about disarmament. However, they hinted on several occasions that they were ready to accept any of the disarmament treaties and engage with the international community. Our campaign lobbied on several occasions but Sri Lanka was not able to proceed to become a State Party to the MBT.

Q: Why do you think that the previous Government avoided becoming party to the MBT?

A: It was mainly because they didn’t want to engage with the international community and it was very clear as they had only a few countries that they associated with. We became totally isolated. A country like Sri Lanka cannot afford to have a foreign policy based on a few countries. Most Sri Lankan exports were sent to EU countries earlier but we lost that opportunity. GSP Plus matters to us as its benefits should go to the grass root level. They are the people who do all the hard work and if they can’t send their products to those countries, they face the consequences.

Under this Government, the doors are open to all countries from A to Z and now we are developing good relationships with the world. This foreign policy needs to be continued by this Government and also by future governments. We need to have more bilateral and multilateral agreements. The world is changing rapidly and we have to move with the changes. 

We had discussions with the President Maithripala Sirisena and other top officials about the importance of becoming a State Party to the MBT and later the Cabinet took a decision to go ahead with the process of becoming a member in early 2017. However, nothing happened, so we signed a petition to ban anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions in post-war Sri Lanka in August 2017 and handed it over to the President. As a result of this move, Sri Lanka was able to accede to the MBT in December 2017.  

Q: You said the previous Government asked some INGOs to stop demining activities?

A: Yes, international organisations like Sarvatha, Horizon, Switzerland-based FSD and Danish Demining Group left the country as the previous Government asked them to leave saying the Government could manage demining activities. The UNDP’s Mine Action Plan also came to standstill and then this affected our demining capacity. We were able to complete demining a significant portion of the mine contaminated areas with their contribution in demining. Since we are now in most difficult minefields, we need more support from such organisations to meet our target of becoming a mine-free country.

 Q: Since we are a State Party to the MBT, will these international organisations make a comeback?

A: It is up to the present Government to invite them. However, most of the international organisations have cut down their funding as they have limited budgets and Sri Lanka is not on their high priority list. If we want their support the Government needs to place demining as one of the priorities in its development agenda. With the accession to the MBT we can now request funding saying that Sri Lanka is going to clear mines before the set target of 2025. Since we are a State Party to the MBT, we have to engage in State Party meetings to update the progress on the five pillars.

Q: What are the benefits for Sri Lanka in becoming a State Party to the MBT?

A: Apart from gaining international support to accelerate the ongoing mine action program, the accession to the MBT will strengthen the ongoing post-war reconciliation efforts. Sri Lanka’s humanitarian image will also be enhanced as a supporter of humanitarian disarmament. It will also help us to bid again for GSP Plus. 

As Sri Lanka is looking forward to building a sustained peace, there is no strategic necessity for the Sri Lankan armed forces to use, produce stockpile or transfer AP mines. This demonstrates Sri Lanka’s commitment towards world peace to the international humanitarian disarmament community. It will also guarantee to future generations that Sri Lanka’s land will never again be contaminated with AP mines. 

A comprehensive mine risk education program under civic education and disaster preparedness can be implemented. Since the MBT is a legally-binding international instrument, Sri Lanka will have the commitment to clear the AP mines and ERW affected lands within an agreeable timeframe. 

Sri Lanka would be able to host the Meeting of the State Parties held annually or the periodic review conference of the MBT and the Cluster Convention and other disarmament conventions held once in five years. If so, Sri Lanka will be the first country to host an event of that magnitude in the South Asian region, which will no doubt bring international fame to Sri Lanka.

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