In 1998 and 2003 I published articles about common myths in mine
clearance in the JMU Journal of Mine Action. Over the intervening years I have received many messages supporting
what I wrote, and none taking the opposing view. Looking
over the original Journal articles, I have changed a few lines, added links and altered the
stress here and there, but I believe that the list remains a relevant
record of unhelpful myths. A
few have been partly addressed, then forgotten. For example, suport for the development
of the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) was founded on an acceptance
that it was not up to the West to dictate details of operation to National
Authorities. This was largely responsible for the relative success of
the IMAS but it was forgotten when UN bureaucrats decided that the International standards had to become UN standards in 2010. A
few of the issues covered have become more complicated. For example, the use of modern munitions
that act as victim-initiated devices but are not designed as mines complicates the
question of whether mine-use is really in decline in some areas. One
or two of the other myths have become entrenched. For example, the idea that a Western
trained EOD man is somehow needed or is naturally superior to a locally
experienced deminer is now 'presumed' despite the fact that a higher proportion of Western trained
EOD men have died in demining over
the past ten years than local deminers with a few weeks training.
In many cases, the highly trained victims were so arrogant that they
took risks that the locals did not dream of doing. Their military training
was not always appropriate.What
follows is a summary of the lies, myths and misconceptions that I addressed
in my Journal articles.
we can send men to the moon, we must be able to do better than a man
with a detector and hand-tools!"
often present the 'man with hand-tools' as an unsophisticated
cave-man technology. In fact, it is more sophisticated than any artificial
device yet available. No matter how many millions of dollars are thrown
at robotics, it will be a very long time before machines equal the sophisticated
array of data gathering and processing equipment that is a human being.
When that is finally achieved, it will be even longer before that technology
can be built into a low-cost, autonomous, self-repairing and self-replicating
robot the size of a deminer.
A self-replicating robot in Bosnia Herzegovina
the greatest killers in post-conflict regions."
some areas, this is true but in most areas, it is the other hazardous detritus of
war that claims the most lives. The truth is that, after a conflict
is over and internally displaced people have returned to the home areas,
all manner of abandoned or unexploded explosive hazards (that are not mines) combine to be the greatest threat to civilians. Sadly, most civilian accidents
occur because they deliberately interact with explosive hazards
motivated to do so by curiosity, bravado or a desire to earn a few
pennies by recycling the materials in them.
are being laid than cleared today."
still quoted by the general public, I hear this argument less often
than in former years which is ironic because there is more truth
in it now that there was a decade ago. In conflict areas more
mines may have been placed than cleared in the last decade. But in those post-conflict
areas that have a mature Mine Action Programme, (Aghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Croatia, Kosovo, Kurdish Iraq,
Bosnia Herzegovina, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Jordan, etc., etc.,) the claim is clearly untrue. Sustained demining efforts
have searched and cleared vast areas of land without any significant replacement
The activities conducted under the Humanitarian Mine Action umbrella have supported the establishment of
stability in many ways and has been an essential part of internationally
supported efforts to break cycles of violence and build the conditions for a sustainable peace.
But it is true that the Ottawa Convention (Mine Ban Treaty) has not stopped mines being used. When they cannot be purchased, there are easily improvised and have been in vast numbers from Sri Lanka and Mynmar to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
have no place in modern warfare."
It would be so nice if that were true but the
truth is that as long as conflicts continue, victim-initiated devices
(mines) of one kind or another will be used. Most have always been used defensively as 'intruder-alarms' that allow a small force to control passage over large areas. When the chips are down,
fighting 'By All Available Means' (BAAM!) is the norm. Victim-initiated devices are frequently used not only defensively but also to attack the opposition, civilian as well as military. When factory made munitions are not available to do this, alternatives have always been improvised.
efforts to alter the BAAM mindset may be a way to change
this. Genuine concern over the long-term effects of weapons will only
become 'fashionable' if led by the worlds dominant military
forces. At present, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the USA have not banned the use of anti-personnel landmines and all continue
to develop other indiscriminate weapons that serve as victim-activated devices. This is because they are perceived as being useful combat tools and any collateral damage they inflict is "tolerable" in times of conflict.
The willingness to use mines and other victim-initiated munitions and Improvised Explosive Devices IEDs) in recent conflicts illustrates how the ICBL's efforts to change the moral parameters that are acceptable in conflict has faltered. The ICBL has become part of the establishment that it was founded to oppose and there is some evidence that it has forgotten the ideals on which is was founded. So, use of anti-personnel landmines has reduced dramatically in most countries.
But the use of indiscriminate, victim-initiated weapons continues and may well have increased.
"You can meet
deminers and find out about demining at conferences."
define a 'humanitarian deminer' as someone whose principal
day-to-day activity involves using their eyes, metal-detectors,
hand-tools, or other means to physically search and clear areas believed to be mined.
These are almost invariably local people. A deminer is not someone you
will meet at a conference or someone who is paid a Western salary. Demining Managers and Technical Advisers do not
actually clear mines themselves. I can think of only a handful of ex-pats
who regularly demine among the many hundreds I have met in my travels,
and these ex-pats do so out of a personal commitment to lead from the front, not
because they are paid to do so. The ex-pat is far more economically
occupied in training and management tasks (often, 20 local deminers
can be employed for the same daily salary of one ex-pat, not to mention
other costs that their employment entails).
is a specialist activity that takes a long time to learn."
almost all countries with an active Humanitarian Demining sector, most
field deminers are relatively uneducated local men and women. They may have a
military background, but this background will not have involved any
relevant training in mine detection and removal. Some organizations
have new deminers working in a live area within ten days of starting
their training. These deminers will then often work alongside a more experience
person for further 'on-the-job' training. This system works,
and from the available accident information it looks as if the highest
risk time among deminers is not their first weeks or even their first
year of work.
truth is that while demining is a specialist activity, it does not take
long to learn. See Chapter 6 of the Global SOPs for a description of how manual demining is conducted.
of humanitarian demining must be set by Western specialists."
I first wrote on this, the UNs published rules were widely
ignored even in programmes under the control of the UN Mine Action Service
(UNMAS). Commercial companies and NGOs made up their own rules, often in competition
with each other, so best practices were not shared. With the development
of genuinely International Mine Action Standards, this situation did change for the better. Based on widespread consultation and involving field people at all levels,
the 2001 International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) were useful and were widely adopted by demining
groups and National Authorities around the world. A few of the oldest demining groups held out and still insist on doing
things much as they have always done, regardless of the improvements to safety that came from sharing knowledge. Some UN supported programmes were also been very poor at implementing the IMAS (see the UNMAS failings in Sudan).
the rules have changed under the leadership of Western specialists,
people who took great pains to achieve widespread practicality. The specialists
led the process but they allowed the real-world to dictate the detail.
This was a major achievement and the inclusion of provisions to update
the standards regularly was a real breakthrough. But the involvement of field practitioners
that achieved this was abandoned when UNMAS took control of the IMAS and made them UN Standards in 2010. Today, the IMAS review board has lost direction and cannot agree a path between politically correct idealism and field pragmatism. As a result, many new IMAS are published only as 'drafts' pending agreement which can only come after some balanced revisions. A lesson learned has been rapidly forgotten and the relevance of the IMAS is declining.
truth is still that western military training is not an adequate, appropriate,
or sufficient preparation for organizing Humanitarian Demining. It is
also true that there is little evidence of value in establishing a remote
bureaucracy to 'control' the industry unless that bureaucracy
remembers who it was established to serve.
issued to our military is the best in the world, so should be used in
reasons why military equipment is rarely the 'best' for demining
are varied, including high cost, inappropriate design for the purpose
and unnecessary complexity. Military uses are not the same as those
in Humanitarian Demining. For example, a metal-detector may be used
once a year in the military, but will be used for long hours every day
in humanitarian demining. The cost of its batteries or its ergonomic comfort may not be issues
for occasional use, but they are when the metal-detector musy be used for many hours every day. Similarly, the military requirement
for speed can compromise the humanitarian requirement for safety
so that an appropriate detector for military use may be one that 'misses'
small metal targets despite that resulting in the occasional casualty.
truth is that equipment designed for a military purpose is rarely ideal
for use in humanitarian demining.
made demining equipment is always of a low quality."
is often a clear assumption behind the attitude of equipment purchasers.
It is an attitude fostered by western suppliers of equipment who prefer
everyone to source through them. The demining supply industry is a sophisticated,
hard-sell extension of the arms supply business, so no one should expect
it to value integrity highly.
main advantages of demining groups having their equipment supplied from
local sources are low-cost, ready availability, and easy maintenance
or repair. The
truth is that adequate, locally-made tools and equipment exist and are
widely used. Sophisticated items such as blast visors, body armor and
blast-resistant hand-tools are also made in
Africa. The best of these are bought by European suppliers and sold under their own company logos at high cost, but are made at low-cost elsewhere. Ignorant purchasers pay twice the price for the same equipment because of their prejudice against purchasing from sources outside the developed world.
Deminer in Africa using
locally made armour, visor and tools:
the same equipment
sold on by European suppliers.
"We need to
spend millions of dollars and use our best brains and facilities to
develop new equipment for demining."
1994, I have still only seen a few areas of major change in the equipment
used on the ground. These are in manual deminer tooling, protection,
metal-detectors and mechanical assistance. None
of the recent changes are the direct result of any western Research and Development (R&D) efforts, although a few research efforts have built on field-led breakthroughs. Reasons for this failure of R&D effort
range from confused design criteria (mixing military needs with those
of humanitarian demining) to an arrogant ignorance of the problems in the
field. In many cases, the inappropriateness of the new equipment has been made
obvious early in its development but after the funds have been granted
the work must go on.
equipment developers have understood field needs far more
successfully. Examples include robust ground compensating
metal-detectors and the increased use of converted plant machinery.
Many field groups have adapted existing plant equipment to meet their
mechanical-assistance needs. Ironically, when they have attracted research
and development funding to do this, their output has generally been far less focused
truth is that demining equipment has been developed in the field at
a fraction of the costs being spent on developing unsuitable equipment
in R&D programmes. If some of that cost were dedicated to demining, the money could achieve far more in terms of safe land returned to the community. But the R&D money is generally NOT available for actual demining so I generally support the research efforts in the hope that there will one day be a significant breakthrough. See Field and Research.
This is an Arjun rake, converted from a backhoe by an Indian demining NGO in Sri Lanka. These tools proved very successful at preparing ground and at one time five different demining organisations were using them. As far as I know, no one is using them today - probably because no one markets them. The originals were all built on second-user machines and were converetd back to civil use when the funding for demining was cut.
A mine cleared
is a limb saved
is often said that, Every mine cleared is a life or limb saved. A statement often linked to the claim that, Demining
is so slow that it makes sense to speed it up by reducing the quality
of the clearance.
truth is that incomplete search and clearance of an area leads to local people
believing the area is safe and so starting to use it. Their
risk of injury actually increases because some of the explosive hazards present were removed.
In this case, a mine cleared can be directly responsible for a limb
is frequently argued that 'area-reduction' need not be as
thorough as search and clearance so it should be acceptable to use methods
that are known to be inefficient. Flails and one or other roller-system
are favourites. They are known to be very inefficient
at detonating pressure devices, cannot reliably pull pins from fragmentation mines or grenades and always leave all abandoned or unexploded ordnance
intact. The advocates of these machines conveniently ignore the fact
that abandoned or unexploded munitions cause more civilian injuries than mines. The local people watch the impressive machine work and
believe that the 'reduced' area is actually a 'safe'
area, so the distinction between 'area reduction' and thorough searh and clearance
is lost on them. They enter an unsafe area with false confidence.
of the reason that people make these arguments is a desire to find a
use for the machines developed with millions of dollars of research
money but never able to achieve the clearance levels of manual deminers.
Another reason is the perceived need to increase the speed of demining
by using new technologies. Managers seek to prove their own worth by increasing 'cost-efficiency' without concern for quality, and they do this with the encouragement of donor representatives who also score points for 'numbers' rather than reality.
truth is that it is safer to mark a dangerous area clearly and leave
it until later than to release a dangerous area for public use.
"Demining is too
is frequently stated as an obvious fact that we are just not working
fast enough and that this justifies spending huge amounts of
money trying to develop a faster way of searching and clearing the ground than by
using manual deminers.
manual demining is not unnecessarily slow. It is in some areas
often due to lack of funding but sometimes due to inefficient management.
In many areas it is remarkably thorough and relatively fast. It also supports post-conflict recovery by giving jobs and so putting money into the local economy.
in Europe provides evidence that speed of search and clearance is not really the
issue. More than a dozen commercial EOD companies still operate in Germany, and thousands of tons of WW1 ordnance is known to still litter old battle
What is necessary is to establish a sustainable local demining capacity
because some search and clearance is likely to be needed for decades to
come, no matter how fast people work today.
truth is that manual demining is only too slow when the necessary funds
and expertise are denied and that spending demining money on
inefficient machines does not really search and clear any ground at all.
capacity-building, clear the area and move on.
it would be convenient if humanitarian demining really did involve a
known number of finite tasks that could be prioritised and finished
with mechanical precision, past experience shows that this is just a
pipe-dream. When it is accepted that problems with the Explosive Remnants
of War will remain for decades as they have in Europe, the need to develop
a sustainable National capacity becomes paramount. This
imperative moves Humanitarian Demining completely away from the mechanistic
in-and-out mindset of a military operation and into the field of 'sustainable
development'. Many people recognise this, but the industry is still
dominated by ex-military officers at all levels. The reason for this
dominance is not that demining requires any military training or skills
especially not those of senior officers. Humanitarian Demining was seen as a job-opportunity for
the many ex-officers who came onto the job-market after the end of the
Cold War and they saw themselves as being 'the right people at the
right time'. They may have been partly right, but a jobs-for-the-boys
approach has ensured that they appoint military successors in a cycle of well-meaning
but relative incompetence that has been impossible to break to date.
are a few notable exceptions ex-military people who have set
out to learn about the countries and cultures they find themselves in,
and about Humanitarian Demining as opposed to military minefield breaching.
But the majority of those in high positions in this industry have no
relevant training or preparation for a role that requires the intelligent
promotion of 'sustainable development' and full integration with other peace-building efforts. Even the exceptions
tend to have short term appointments that do not allow sensible long-term
be fair to them, it is not always obvious who should replace them because the
'development' industry has had rather too many failures
to inspire great confidence. So those with experience in development
programmes are not necessarily any better qualified, and even when they
are they frequently believe that you need soldiers to deal with
truth is that the profession of Humanitarian Demining needs to be led by people 'trained' by on-the-job experience. Some
of these will be ex-soldiers, and some ex-development workers. If the industry
is to progress, the leaders of the old-school must move aside to let
those who have the relevant experience to promote 'sustainable
demining' as part of peace-building take over. Positions in Humanitarian Demining
leadership should not be allowed to be a sinecure (or a retirement home)
for old officers or for career bureaucrats within the UN....
comments and arguments would be appreciated. Email me at avs(at)nolandmines.com