Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

The UK's debt to Libya over explosives


2009: In the Summer of 2009 (traditionally a media "silly-season") the UK media promoted the idea that Libya should pay compensation to those injured by IRA bombs because Libya supplied the plastic explosive from which the bombs were made. The Prime Minister announced personal support for the claims. If the idea had any mileage, it would be relevant to humanitarian demining because funding would always be available from those who supplied the explosive inside the devices (no matter who actually used them). All we would have to do is find a few devices, and submit the bill to the manufacturing country... except that this would often by China, Pakistian, the USA or the ex-Soviet Union, none of which would pay. But countries that had extracted compensation from others, such as the UK is attempting to do from Libya, would be obliged to recognise that the principle works both ways.

In November 2003, the UK approved Protocol V of the Convention on Prohibitions and Restrictions on the use of Certain Conventional Weapons. This protocol deals with unexploded and abandoned ordnance left over after fighting ends (known as Explosive Remnants of War or ERW). The protocol stops short of requiring those who put the ERW there to pay for its removal, but it is interpreted as encouraging it. The Protocol puts no responsibility on the manufacturers or supplier of the explosives and is not retrospective, so does not cover ERW resulting from conflicts before the date that it entered into force (November 2006).

This may be just as well. British made munitions are all around the world, and there are millions in Libya. They date from WW2 and the period of British control that followed. Victim numbers have not been gathered in one place, but recent hospital records alone indicate that there have been hundreds of civilian casualties and deaths resulting from the ERW left by the UK.

I was in Libya earlier this year and took photographs of obvious British mines and WW2 ERW as part of an attempt to assess the impact of WW2 ordnance on the country's development. The following pictures were all taken close to towns - and without having the means to make a detailed survey.

UXO Libya mine

British made Anti-Tank mines still litter the desert 67 years after being placed.

UXO Libya mine UK

UK mine in my hands in Libya

Some are badly corroded.

UXO in Libya

The sand blows back and forth, sometimes covering these bombs.

ground littered with ERW in Libya

Where there is less sand, the entire ground is sometimes covered in abandoned WW2 munitions. Some are German, Italian and US, but they all became Britain’s responsibility when the UK governed in Libya after Rommel’s defeat.

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

WW2 ERW close to house in Libya

And they are often far too close to houses.

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

People have become blasé about the risks. Live munitions have been used to prop this fence up.

After 1945, the Allied forces built cemeteries for the fallen and they are kept tidy to this day. The picture below was taken in a Commonwealth cemetery outside Tobruk.

WW2 graveyard in Libya

But the British failed to show the same respect to the Libyan people, who still live with the explosive residue of their presence. Perhaps it is time for us to pay to clean up after a war that was not against the Libyans, but which we chose to fight on Libyan ground?

WW2 ERW on ground in Libya

To suggest that British military engineers should work in Libya is unlikely to be politically acceptable to any of the parties. But Humanitarian Demining is now a mature industry and has many neutral players who could act on the UK's behalf. A rapid and accurate survey of the remaining problem is needed, followed by the efficient removal and destruction of all the ERW at the expense of the former combatants. Italy is reported to have offered Libya substantial compensation for events during its former occupation and role in WW2. It is high time for the UK (and Germany) to accept responsibility for removing the Explosive Remnants of War that remain – and for over half a century of civilian victims.   

Meantime, it is ironic that Libya should be the target for the British Government’s duplicity over what is effectively an extension of the “polluter pays” argument. The explosives we left behind after our WW2 occupation imply an indifference to the Libyan population that is shameful. It is even more shameful that this explosive ordnance is still there 67 years after the fighting ended. While the UK sets this kind of example, we cannot pretend any moral superiority over Colonel Ghadafi’s Libya.

[Feel free to reproduce this - and ask for hi-res pictures if you need them: avs(at)]

[And for my American readers, it may be worth mentioning that the USAF took over the WW2 air war in Libya, bombing all major towns and defensive lines and establishing airfields that were manned by US ground troops and were mined defensively.]