Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

The slow death of the International Standards

The U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) first tried to set standards for the Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) Industry in 1997 when they organised a conference in Copenhagen and the UN Mine Action Standards were produced. Known as the 'Copenhagen Standards', the result was idealistic, but unworkable. As quick examples, every demining site required a helicopter CASEVAC and all deminers had to wear bomb-suits, helmets and 13mm thick visors. These were 'safe' in so far as no one could be criticised for setting the bar too low, but not a single UN controlled Mine Action effort could apply the standards they had produced.

The UK's Alistair McAslan won an award for his work bringing the industry together to draft the first genuinely International standards between 1999 and 2001. Amid commercials and NGOs, UN organisations and diplomats, he deliberately brought in elected field people and vocal critics of the industry. This helped to make the standards a reflection of what was practical, and so become minimum requirements that everyone should be able to achieve. Central to the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) was an agreed definition of what 'Clearance' actually meant. It did not mean removing most mines from an area. It meant clearance of ALL explosive hazards to an agreed depth over that area.

For the next ten years, the IMAS were steadily improved by a Review Board on which I was elected to serve. Impractical requirements were removed and other requirements refined in a way that led to almost all field operatives accepting the IMAS as a baseline. This was good for them because every organisation had to achieve a known end result. It was also good for the donors who could, at last, have some idea what they were paying for. And it was good for UNMAS because they had organised it but could not be blamed for its failings.

On October 20th 2011, the last of the original elected field representatives was effectively removed from the IMAS Review Board by a newly appointed UN Steering Committee. I am that person. I was formally chastised for referring to the GICHD as the GiHAD on a Humanitarian Demining internet forum that I had established in 2003. This crime had been committed regularly over eight years, during which I was repeatedly invited to remain an independent member of the IMAS board. To see the email exchanges with the self-appointed leader of the IMAS Steering Committee, click here. It is obvious that the 'GiHAD' was a convenient excuse and in fact I was 'dismissed' for questioning the direction in which UNMAS and the GiHAD are leading Humanitarian Mine Action, with specific reference to Sudan.

The standards I had worked for were intentionally put together as International Standards, not UN Standards - because the UN had no authority to impose their views, and really had very little idea about field reality. It was field-orientated people who brought reality to the 2001 release and who instigated all important revisions, so they are responsible for making the IMAS a success. I personally drafted many revisions, finally getting through the change to the Mechanical IMAS that recognises that machines cannot 'clear' ground to the required standard even though the revision was opposed by the GiHAD and by those who make big money out of deploying machines that cannot do the job.

In 2010, UNMAS unilaterally decided to put an IMAS Steering Committee in place - and appointed each other to serve on it. Some of the same people responsible for the misuse of machines were represented, along with GICHD, which had become a bureaucratic club not unlike UNMAS itself. The problem with all bureaucracies is that individuals become more concerned with their promotion within the bureaucracy than the pursuit of the purpose for which they were established. GICHD is no exception. It wants to become a genuine centre of excellence, but cannot balance that with an ongoing need to invent 'essential' services that they can sell internationally, so it appoints 'safe' bureaucrats who will suppress inconvenient truths in pursuit of the success of the institution and its popularity with those who have commercial interests.

The international demining community does not have to be 'fairly represented' on the new IMAS Steering Group so, effectively, UNMAS has snatched back the success of the IMAS and made them UN standards, no longer International standards.

As long as this is the case, the international demining community, and the donors of it, should understand that the authority they have come to grant an international agreement no longer has validity. The IMAS are no longer what they claim to be, and the UN bureaucrats in charge are no better qualified to lead Humanitarian Mine Action than they ever were. Indeed, their failure to apply the IMAS to their own past efforts makes them unlikely custodians of the values of the IMAS in future.

Just one example of why UNMAS in an inadequate agency to set standards for others is their record in Sudan over recent years.

To put this story in context, we have to go back some years to GICHD inviting an '"interest-group' to draft the mechanical IMAS in which they coined the terms 'Mechanical Demining' and 'Mechanical Clearance'. The latter contradicted the definition of clearance in IMAS 09.10 Clearance requirements - but my objection to its use were drowned out by GiHAD lobbying (assisted by the fact that the GICHD served as secretary to the IMAS Review Board).

IMAS 09.10 defines clearance as:

"Land shall be accepted as 'cleared' when the demining organisation has ensured the removal and/or destruction of all mine and ERW hazards, including unexploded sub-munitions, from the specified area to the specified depth."

I argued that, because no existing machine on its own can do this, the use of the term 'Clearance machine' was inappropriate and potentially misleading. Machines can detonate some devices and some (especially detectors and sifters) may locate all devices, but in that case the 'clearance' follows detection and is manual. It was suggested by the GiHAD wise men that this difference was 'semantic' and it is – but only in so far as all language based communication is semantic. Obviously, the IMAS should try to be precise and internally consistent when we expect them to be widely translated.

Their 'interest group' of people who had invested in machines was deaf, but they all knew that without a man (or woman) in the loop, no machine can leave land in a state that can be 'clear' using the IMAS definition. They all leave pin-pull mines and common ordnance behind, and in my experience, always leave some damaged pressure-operated mines behind as well (sometimes pushed deep, sometimes thrown outside the original mined area). I have many photographs of mines found after the passage of demining machines but have never been asked to show them because everyone with experience knows that machines cannot really find and clear all explosive hazards on any ground.

Some users of machines went on to quote the GICHD drafted IMAS on machines as evidence that the use of their machine was all that was required to clear ground to international standards. The inadequate work that resulted cost post-conflict countries and donors serious money, and has almost certainly cost lives.

Despite having a great deal of support for my views, it took more than four years for me to get IMAS 09:50 Mechanical Demining appropriately revised. It may be no surprise if I mention that influential individuals at the GiHAD opposed the revision. If anyone should doubt the accuracy of this summary, the email exchanges covering it are all held on record.

The new IMAS 09:50 no longer makes reference to 'Clearance Machines'. On the follow-up needed behind machines, it now states:

When demining machines are used in clearance operations to detonate devices and the machine may leave hazards within the agreed clearance depth, follow-up demining operations shall be carried out before the area is released as cleared.

When demining machines are used for ground preparation in a Defined Hazardous Area (DHA) that will be released as cleared, they shall always be followed-up by other demining operations.

Unfortunately it was not only the GiHAD which had interpreted the IMAS in favour of machine manufacturers. Some UNMAS controlled programmes also failed to understand how central the definition of 'clearance' is to Humanitarian Mine Action. For example, the Asset Decision Making Tool released by UN Mine Action Office (UNMAO) Sudan allows for a single pass of a MineWolf 370 with tiller attachment to be classed as 'clearance' in an area where there were believed to be anti-personnel blast and fragmentation mines. This represents a gross reduction in standards that has been led by a UN country programme dispensing donor funds and charging donors highly for its 'expertise'. It could be argued that hazard-reduction rather than hazard elimination is the aim and if the Sudanese are happy with this, we should not complain. I might agree, as long as they did not call the result 'clearance' in a UNMAS controlled and supposedly 'humanitarian' programme. In a competitive environment, those engaged in genuine 'clearance' could not bid for work on a level playing field when competing with a result that is allowed not to equal 'clearance' as defined in IMAS. And the safety of the end-users of the land was simply ignored.

The 2009 Land Release IMAS formalised what intelligent NGO operators have always done - narrow down the search area and only clear where there are mines. Land without evidence of contamination SHOULD be released without search and clearance. And perhaps the passage of a machine could give confidence that there is no need to clear - but you could only have that confidence if a proportion of the land were thoroughly searched and cleared to check the machine's performance. No land that has only been processed by a machine should be released as 'cleared'. If it is released as 'cleared', it puts the demining group at risk of legal liability, increases risk to the end-users and also puts deminers who have to traverse the area at unnecessary risk.

After the revision of IMAS 09.50 Mechanical demining, UNMAO Sudan put out five Requests For Proposals (RFPs). An RFP is the way that the UN disperses donor money and all registered NGO and commercial demining organisations should be able to respond. The Sudan RFPs required those bidding to use specified multi-million dollar machines made in Europe and RSA for 'clearance'. The Sudan RFPs were rigged so that only a few players could respond. Many responsible demining agencies who could deliver real search and clearance using manual assets could not bid. The players who could respond belonged to the same mechanical mafia that I have encountered wherever demining is seen as a route to fat profits. But the worst part is not that UNMAS has deliberately reduced standards to give these mercenaries their profits, which they clearly have. It is that most of the donor money that is meant to go into HMA to support the peace-building process by providing security and stimulating the economy is going out of Sudan as fast as it goes in. No security results, little money enters the national economy, no effort is made to use methods that may be transferred to national control, and the IMAS definition of 'clearance' - which UNMAS are responsible for - is ignored.

UNMAO Sudan decision making "tool"

High resolution images of these UNMAO "decision making tools" showing how the breaching of IMAS by using inadequate machines for clearance was institutionalised in Sudan are available of request.

Is it coincidental that UNMAS and UNOPS ran the Sudan programme and simultaneously hijacked the International Mine Action Standards?

It probably is - if only because they are not that organised. I do not believe that UNMAO Sudan's obsession with machines is necessarily corrupt or evil, although it could be. I believe it has occurred because of gross ignorance and an obsession with producing meaningless square metre statistics to satisfy donors who they have misled. Whatever the cause, it undermines all that we have worked for in HMA over the years, undermines the foundation of the IMAS (which was to present a level playing field for all those operating in HMA) and shows a shameful ignorance of the integrated security and peace-building aims of Humanitarian Mine Action as known to most intelligent operators with field experience. In the early days of IMAS the commercials were on board when we dropped the UN's unworkable 99.6% clearance requirement (part of the UN's infamous Copenhagen Standards). The commercials themselves wanted everyone to have to find and clear all mines and ERW to an agreed depth. But now many commercials have become multi-nationals and seem prepared to compromise integrity for an easy profit - and why not when the idea has the sanction of UNMAS? I have reliable reports from Sudan of UNMAO sanctioning the use of flails without hammers (to save on hammers, bless them) and of mechanical follow-up with large-loop detectors in areas with minimum-metal mines, etc. To anyone who knows demining, UNMAO appear to have been er, very incompetent, at best.

I understand that UNMAS is stuck for cash and is increasingly obliged to rely on the GiHAD to take its role. But the GiHAD have always appointed 'safe-buddy' specialists with limited knowledge of their specialist area - and they become the expert in that field overnight, usually without any clear overview of HMA, its goals and history. HMA has always been simple. We do not need experts who do not have an overview in which to place their expertise. But the GiHAD has successfully specialised in creating jobs for itself and friends, complicating a demining process that must be kept simple if it is really going to be given into the hands of those affected in national programmes. Thanks to them (and to ignorant people drafting UN contracts) you had to buy their friends' machines that you knew would not leave safe land in order to bid for UN contracts in Sudan.

When I made the information about UNMAO Sudan public, I irritated the current leadership at UNMAS. Their acting-director, who was also the self-appointed chair of the IMAS Steering Committee, could not answer the criticisms and could not pretend that I was simply wrong because too many people knew otherwise. So he wrote to me on behalf of the IMAS Steering Committee - censuring me for being "offensive to people of the Islamic faith". Calling GICHD the 'GiHAD' was my crime. Obviously, I was really being excluded for criticising the UNMAS led Mine Action Office's leadership in Sudan, and the GiHAD's lack of integrity over its apparent support for machine manufacturers. Criticising me for religious intolerance seemed clever because it obliged me to defend myself, but when it transpired that no one had complained, it became a public example of their unplanned knee-jerk 'leadership' failings.

So the IMAS died... and should now be known as the UN-MAS... because their maintenance is at the mercy of UNMAS and their GICHD pals in the mountains.

If you thought they might turn out to be trustworthy, well I am sorry to report that the decay did not take long. In their 2013 revision of the Land Release standards the confused use of 'clearance' was reintroduced. Throughout the revision of the three Land Release standards, the word 'clearance' is used to mean both any demining activity and actual "clearance" as defined in IMAS 09.10.

The standard called U.N.MAS 08.20 Technical Survey, included the following:

"the use of assets as clearance devices, including their capability to indicate, remove, destroy or detonate devices should be assessed..."

In this case, an asset's "ability to destroy or detonate devices" can only refer to a mechanical asset - which (for internal IMAS consistency) cannot also be a 'clearance device'... except to the UN and the experts at GICHD, of course. So the mechanical lobby wins - either through incompetence or deliberate design, the way is open for them to claim compliance with the clearance requirements once again.

While I was an IMAS Board member I argued against a GICHD plan to rewrite the entire standards. The rewrite had been suggested so that the standards ceased to be centred on 'mines' and referred to all explosive remnants of war (ERW) - which the IMAS already do, as is shown in the definition of clearance above. But the rewrite would have given work to the Geneva crew so, despite the IMAS Board opposing it, it will happen sooner or later. When it does happen, I do hope that the UNMAS/GICHD club will have the integrity to re-brand them as UN standards because the decline of their hard-won authority as International standards has been in evidence for years.

When the leadership is willing to sell the definition of 'clearance' for the convenience of their friends, that may be no bad thing. Long live the IMAS - and may the UN-MAS founder!

Given the current direction of UNMAS and GICHD, I believe that it is time for all donors to abandon the hope of realistic UNMAS leadership in HMA. If donors genuinely want to support peace-building and post-conflict recovery, they should give their funding direct to the demining organisations that they trust, just as they did before the UN assumed the leadership of Humanitarian Mine Action. UNMAS apparently always lacks funds while its partner, GICHD, sells invented services to UN managed programmes. The question hardly needs asking, but if all the real costs behind both UNMAS and the GICHD went to search and clearance, how much more real work could be done? And of course, if the Standards Review Board were dominated by elected field people with broad experience, how much more useful might they become?

All that said, there were a few thinking people on the IMAS Review Board in 2018 so I hope that the current move for the IMAS to formally class tiller machines as capable of 'clearance' will fail. GICHD has been obliged to post some new or revised IMAS as 'drafts' because there is not full agreement, so I have hope that the corpse of the 'international' standards may yet be resurrected.