Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

The UN and Humanitarian Mine Action


I first encountered the UN via its country offices and projects in places that were either recovering from conflict or still pursuing conflict. Like most people, I thought of the UN as a single global entity controlled from the Security Council in new York. I understood that the presence of the UN in a country was intended to provide a stabilising influence and seek to limit human suffering. That sounds simple and laudable, but even a simple goal gets far more complicated when overlaid with the complexities and paradoxes of politics.

When I started in Humanitarian Demining I looked up to the UN Country Office as THE Authority. I coveted a blue UN passport, believing that it would attract respect and make it easier for me to get my work done. I got my blue passport when I was appointed to be UNDP’s Chief Technical Advisor to a Mine Action Centre, then found that the UN’s failure to control their issue of passports meant that many countries would not accept it (including the UK) so I still had to use my UK passport to travel (they have since introduced a new passport system that may be better.

UNDP is not the UN, it is the UN Development Programme – a discrete part of the UN club which includes UNMAS, UNICEF, UNDP, BCPR/S, UNOPS, UNESCO, UNHCR, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation. Each UN agency has its own bureaucracy and related UN commissions, programmes, offices, services or bureaus. They may have projects that are run from a shared country office or may be entirely separate, with different reporting and bureaucratic requirements despite efforts to standardise. Whichever UN agency they are employed by and whatever specialist skills they may have, most UN staff spend most of their time coping with the bureaucracy itself.

The UN explained visually

In the countries where I have worked, there has usually been a UN country office. That office is staffed with internationals from all over the world – a deliberate policy that leads to cross-cultural sharing of experience and achievements. Their success is monitored and managed from New York using specialist computer systems that rely on endless data-entry in the country office. When I became a UNDP Chief Technical Advisor for demining in a country I got my first glimpse of the inside of the UN’s bureaucratic pyramid. The Chief Technical Advisor (CTA) for demining is effectively the Country Manager for Humanitarian Mine Action but, because you are not a career bureaucrat, you can safely be ignored. No one above you in the pyramid need answer your questions – and all those beneath you are primarily concerned with elbowing you out of their way.

When I was CTA, I had no formal contact with the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). I had no assistance from UNDP’s HMA team or BCPR (Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Resolution/Stabilisation, as was) despite being required to report to them. I answered directly to the UN’s Resident Representative in country and to every level of bureaucracy in his office, including career bureaucrat ‘Project officers’. In Tajikistan my project officer was a Westerner who had contempt for me because I did not know the bureaucracy and who enjoyed obstructing my work. In Libya my project officer was a national who provided intelligent and enthusiastic support. So, my limited experience leads me to believe that good national staff are far more likely to care that a project should succeed than career internationals.  

Wherever the UN works, the national context dictates what it does and how it does it. In Cambodia when I first went there, the Khmer Rouge still had a lot of support in rural areas and access was very insecure. Most UN Mine Action staff were seconded from foreign armies (largely Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and were not allowed into those large areas where the Khmer Rouge were active. They were also not allowed to actually clear mines themselves, which did little to engender respect amongst the nationals they were supposed to guide. In Angola, Savimbi and his UNITA supporters controlled the diamond rich north and opposed the oil-enriched government forces elsewhere. There was a fragile UN brokered ceasefire between 1994-1998 and then war resumed – because both sides had the money to keep buying weapons and both had their eyes on the resources held by the other. In Bosnia, the break up of the former Yugoslavia led 500 year old ethnic conflicts to suddenly re-emerge and the UN did not dare enter Serb areas for some time, but the (somewhat improbable) peace has held so far. In Afghanistan, the UN office was based in Pakistan from 96-2000. It could not be based inside Afghanistan because the US funded Taliban government (yes, supported by the USA) had not been recognised by the UN Security Council (Russia being a permanent member) and because the internal conflict made security a huge issue outside the areas controlled by the Taliban. In Sri Lanka, the Norwegian brokered ceasefire between the Tamils and the Sinhalese lasted from 2002 to 2006 but a formal peace agreement was never agreed. As war returned, government forces killed Tamil civilians in what some call an act of genocide. In Tajikistan, civil war had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rural people opposed rule from the urban centres – and the self-proclaimed government brought in the Uzbekistan air-force to ‘subdue’ the people in the mountains. A disparate alliance of mountain people used old Russian stockpiles to mine their defences – while the ‘government’ cluster bombed their villages and sent old Russian tanks up the rocky mountain paths. The wrecked tanks are still there – testament to the fact that the rural people did not lose. Eventually, and with UN assistance, an accord was reached that made the country a 'Federation', with the mountain people remaining nominally autonomous (although that is now in question). In Libya, I was Chief Technical Advisor before the ‘Arab Spring’ when the Ghadaffi regime had liberalised significantly and the country was at peace. The extensive mine problems dated from WW2 and Libya’s previous conflict with Egypt. I reported on the problem but was not allowed to seek funds to resolve it for unexplained political reasons. Subsequent western intervention, no matter how well meant, has caused an exponential rise in explosive hazards, tens of thousands dead, and a security situation so volatile that most demining organisations dare not send international staff there to work.    

It may be difficult for people living comfortably in countries without conflict to understand that in none of these conflicts was there an obviously good and a bad side. Terrible things were done by all sides – with the use of mines being amongst the least of the atrocities – and no one could avoid involvement. Ordinary people, school teachers and nurses, mechanics, traders, builders, shepherds, shopkeepers and farmers – were all on one side or another because neutrality was not an option.

Conflict has a dehumanising effect, and a dynamic that resists compromise as the leaders accrue more and more atrocities committed in their name. The foot soldiers, from children to pensioners have also been sold a political line and have thrown aside humanitarian values in pursuit of it. After a while they cannot afford to doubt that victory will be worth the cost to their integrity as human beings. This is as true of an American airman laughing as he mistakenly guns down a TV crew in Iraq as it is of a Khmer Rouge boy soldier deliberately shooting a schoolteacher because he appears to be a supporter of the feudal autocracy that treated the ordinary people as virtual slaves.

When the UN is operating during any conflict, it should not openly take a side – if it does it will become a target for the other sides (and there are usually several factions). The UN cannot show any overt political ‘leadership’ – but should continue to promote its goals. Unfortunately, those goals include the promotion of ideas that are often profoundly political and frequently rely on a 21st Century Western worldview that often appears to have no relevance in a country that does not have a Western historical background of piecemeal social change over protracted periods of peace.

In Tajikistan, for example, it was rather hard to prioritise women’s rights. The mined areas were rural – in the mountains – and the people Muslim. Despite several generations under the Soviet regime, people in the mountain areas retained a medieval worldview. Friendly and hospitable but without a modern consumer lifestyle, they lived indoors with their livestock for several months of the year because of the snow. These were not fundamentalist extremists, but old traditions take time to erode. As part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission they had established an office in a rural centre called Gharm. Following their gender-positive policies, they staffed it with local women. The office closed after a couple of years. When I went to Gharm twelve years later, two women asked me to employ them because, by having worked with Western men in the temporary UN office, they could not marry and no one would employ them. A well intentioned policy had blighted their lives because it could not be sustained. I was told that they were spurned more often by the rural women than by the men. The fact that this is absurd was not changed by my saying that it was so.

When the US and the UK invaded Afghanistan it was partly justified by claiming that we wanted to support women’s rights. That was not true. I worked in Afghanistan each year from 1996 to 2000. In rural areas, men and women supported the Taliban because they had imposed a set of rules and non-violence that saved them from the excesses of the warlords after the Soviet withdrawal. The Talib were their local religious leaders, and were seen as imposing peace and morality. Educated men and women were obliged to conceal their sophistication or go abroad, but for almost all Afghans the Taliban were the lesser of two evils. They took Afghanistan back to the pre-Soviet era where there were no schools for women – but also no bars and brothels, no gang-rapes and murder, no obsession with material goods and an amoral personal power. A very hard but familiar 13th Century lifestyle was resumed. When the BBC began broadcasting from Afghanistan after the US/UK invasion, they could not find pictures of women not wearing the Burkha so they showed images of Kutchi nomad women instead. These women are not Moslem and have never worn the Burkha. Even today, most Moslem women in Afghanistan remain covered up - they always have been and many value the familiar traditions in the violently unpredictable world that has been imposed on them. Within ten days of the first British troops arriving in Afghanistan, the first brothel opened in Kabul. We imposed Western control to improve women’s rights? I really do not think so.

The current UN Mine Action Centre Afghanistan (UNMACA) is well funded but frequently unable to work effectively because it is seen as being on one side of the conflict – funded and staffed by countries with a vested interest in maintaining a government made up of old warlords, the same people who had been shooting UN supported deminers during the years that I spent time there. [For an understanding of the rise of the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, read “Taliban”, Ahmed Rashid, 2001, Pan Books.]

The UN and its agencies are flawed by their bureaucracy, human errors, and by internal political contradictions.

Bureaucratic problems
The UN bureaucracy deliberately employs people from many countries, most of whom could not command anything like the same income and lifestyle anywhere else. They enter an elite club that is structured to protect itself and the privileges it can bestow. For most employees, the preservation of their jobs has the highest priority – not necessarily because the individuals are selfish. Many are supporting a lot of other people at home. If staff can help each other to get five continuous years of employment with the UN, they will get a pension for life. Further, each UN country office gains kudos and income depending on how many projects they control, so the office has no obvious incentive to support plans that would bring projects to an end.

Human error
The human error is ours. We have an idealised view of ‘humanitarian’ values – and think we have the right to impose them on other cultures. The imposition of what I call ‘Coca-Cola’ freedoms on relatively unsophisticated but sustainable communities often causes disruption, dissatisfaction and increased hardship. It is the relative prosperity of our lives that allows us to pursue humanitarian ideals – and the value we place on them depends on our prosperity (see ‘Maslow's hierarchy of needs’).

When the UN fails to impose our values on things like gender issues, but its presence does promote peace and introduces the possibility of an alternative worldview, it may be achieving all we could realistically ask – so all that we should want.

Internal political contradictions
The UN’s third major flaw is that its goals do not reflect those of its most powerful member states. Member states put self-interest first and invariably believe that the lives of their own citizens are of greater value that those of ‘foreigners’ of ‘aliens’. In historical terms, we are living through a period of economic colonialism by the same world powers that dominate the UN Security Council. All of them sometimes see humanitarian idealism as a luxury that conflicts with their economic prosperity, political efficiency and the ‘greater good’.

Each UN organisation sets its own goals, which are ‘approved’ by the Security Council without necessarily being adopted by any member. For example, UNDP’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ reflect humanitarian values as perceived by educated liberals living in wealthy and secure countries. Anyone working for UNDP is supposed to pursue these goals despite the fact that they may detract from achieving the narrower goals that are prioritised in the countries where they work. These are some of the current UNDP goals:

  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

  • Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

  • Reduce income inequality within and among countries.

  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

  • Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.

  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

  • Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

UNDP claims to be “supporting its national partners to build their own solutions” while also pursuing these ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ regardless of whether their national partners prioritise them. This is not building ‘their’ solutions, but imposing ‘ours’ without recognising that these goals have not been achieved in the UK, USA, Russia, France or China, or indeed anywhere in the world. A ‘goal’ can be scored, so must be achievable. I support these ‘goals’ as ideals – but it is self-indulgent hypocrisy for comfortable and well-paid UNDP bureaucrats to impose goals that it would require an unprecedented global economic and social revolution to achieve. Nonetheless, I support the UN.

Funding for UN activities is made available by donor countries whose self-interest dictates the recipients. This is also true for demining activities, whether or not the money passes through the UN.

When the US wanted to maintain good relations with the Sri Lankan government to head off Chinese expansion, they gave money for demining. They spent the money on training and equipping Sri Lankan soldiers but did not give the government the arms it wanted to defeat the Tamils. Australia, seeing Sri Lanka as being inside its sphere of interest, gave money to demining INGOs but would not pay for demining in the Tamil held areas despite those areas being by far the most hazardous. Japan, seeing Sri Lanka as definitely a part of its sphere of interest, gave money to demining INGOs working as directed by the Sri Lankan government, so outside Tamil areas again. The UK, as always, tried to help an ex-colony by funding UK based INGOs – working only in areas approved by the Sri Lankan government. Norway funded Norwegian Peoples’ Aid for demining (working largely in Tamil areas) and also the emergent Indian NGOs (working on the government side of the ceasefire line). Switzerland was the only other donor that funded work on both sides of the line. India, knowing that the Tamil ‘problem’ extended to the mainland, had to be cautious because it had once supplied a peacekeeping force that had become too engaged in the fighting. It funded no one until the Sri Lankan government had wiped out the Tamil resistance, then funded the Indian NGOs to clear the areas once controlled by the Tamils. Perhaps coincidentally, after oil was discovered in Sri Lankan waters, the Chinese had extended loans to the government  that allowed them to buy arms to pulverise the Tamils in a solution that many think was genocide. The government denies this and the UN kept silent until it was all over.

All through this, and the tsunami, the UN had a presence and many of its agencies operated. When the ‘final solution’ began, the government stopped UNDP appointing demining advisors. I think this was partly because demining tends to reveal mass graves and the government wanted its activities unrecorded. Even when atrocities were recorded, they were not publicised by the UN because it could not do that without considering all of the political ramifications. By keeping its head down, the UN were able to help others keep thousands of Tamils who were held in internment camps alive.

The fact that the UN can achieve anything at all in this kind of context is remarkable, and is why I believe that it is important to support the UN. There is no other club with so many members and so much, albeit confused, influence. Far from perfect, its projects are staffed by people who are largely doing their best – and who sometimes achieve something. That is probably the best we can realistically ask for.