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Press centre


To the Meeting of the Reinforced Mine Action Support Group


New York - 19 November 2001

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am very pleased to address this gathering - and to express UNICEF's appreciation for the coordinated efforts of the Mine Action Support Group.
Mr. Chairman, it is rare to see a community of interest made so manifest.

With Afghanistan foremost in our thoughts, it is worth recalling that what we now call "humanitarian mine action" was born only a decade ago, in the aftermath of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal - something that Martin Barber, who in Afghanistan at the time, well remembers.

Today I want to talk briefly about how mine action began - and to offer some thoughts on where the concept of mine awareness fits into the bigger picture.

It is a grim irony that more people died in the immediate aftermath of the last major conflict in Afghanistan than in all the months that led to its conclusion in '89 - and landmines were a major factor.

Among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans trying to return to their homes, the level of death and injury caused by landmines - and by unexploded ordinance, as we later came to realise - was horrific. And the carnage was all the worse in a country whose health-care system, rudimentary at best, had been reduced to rubble.

As Graça Machel has pointed out, landmines are a uniquely savage element in the history of modern conventional warfare not only because of their appalling individual impact, especially on the bodies of children - but because of their long-term social and economic destruction, including the diversion of scarce resources away from development.

In Afghanistan, it quickly became clear that landmines posed a significant obstacle to post-war recovery and rebuilding objectives, beginning with the resettlement of internally displaced persons and the repatriation of refugees.

Moreover, prospects for local and national economic recovery are severely affected by landmines, which constrain the transport and distribution of food, fuel, shelter, and other basic relief supplies; the repair of roads, water and sanitation, power and other essential infrastructure; and the rehabilitation of homes, schools, public facilities, irrigation networks, farms and orchards.

In addition, the psychological impact is well known - harder to measure, to be sure, but unmistakable. Mines take away freedom of movement, rob children of their right to play, and erode parents' peace of mind. Indeed, mines are a continuation of war by other means, for if people are not free from the fear of violent death or injury while going about their daily lives, a conflict cannot be said to be over.

In 1989 the United Nations and its partners - empowered by cash and in-kind contributions from many of the countries that are represented here today - began to engage in - and indeed, to define - humanitarian mine action.

Today there are almost 30 mine action programmes either directly implemented or supported by the United Nations, as well as a number of mine-awareness programmes operating or under establishment in parts of the world where mine clearance is currently not possible, such as Burundi, Colombia, southern Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Chairman, we have come a long way. We have an international instrument banning the production, use, stockpiling, sale and export of these dreadful weapons; we have UN policies; agencies and coordination mechanisms; we have international standards, and our own "thematic CAP" - the annual UN Portfolio of Mine Related Projects. We even have our own donor forum! And we certainly have more than our fair share of acronyms, from IMAS and IMSMA to UNMAS. In fact, we have an entire language with which to conceptualise mine issues!

But mine action was, and still is, about people. We are concerned not with the weapons themselves, but the ways that they affect people's lives. And mine awareness is a key point of reference. With your indulgence, I want to take just a moment to play you a tape recording of something that I think demonstrates precisely this point: (Play 10 seconds of boys and girls in an Ethiopian village singing a mine-awareness song)

What you just heard was recorded by a UNICEF staffer in the remote Ethiopian village of Mayhamoto in February of this year. The song was written by the five boys and five girls who sing it - they are all between 10 and 16 - and it tells of the dangers of mines, of a friend killed by one, of the ruinous loss of family livestock - and of the daily ordeal of finding water in an arid environment where even the river banks are mined.

In the period since the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended, in this tiny village, one person was killed and five injured. And our staff member later found herself talking to two small boys who had each lost a finger as they played together with the fuse of a POM-Z anti-personnel fragmentation mine.

But such episodes are becoming increasingly rare in Mayhamoto, as in other villages in Tigray province, which is adjacent to the Temporary Security Zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Mayhamoto had a mine-action committee by the end of last year - not so very long after the war ended. These were set up by the communities at the instigation of a local NGO, whose members were was trained and supported by UNICEF.

Indeed, throughout Tigray, schoolchildren have formed mine-awareness clubs, and villagers have set up radio-listening groups to learn more about mine threats, and to pass information along to their communities. This year, if funding can be found, the programme will extend into the province of Afar.

Mr. Chairman, I tell you this story because it is a good example of a best practice - low cost, high impact, appropriate, and - since it is implemented by the communities themselves - sustainable.

But it also serves to illustrate how mine awareness and mine clearance go hand in hand. In Ethiopia, this community network - integrated into the local administrative infrastructure - is the source of virtually all mine-impact information to the national mine action authority, including mine victim data and mined-area reports. It also serves to ensure that minefield markings, once they are in place, will be understood by those they are intended to warn.

In the aftermath of war, and even while war is ongoing, people have a right to understand the threat, and to know how to reduce the risk of mines and unexploded ordnance. And if, as is usually the case, people repatriate or resettle before mine clearance or even survey and minefield marking can take place, we need to help them to develop specific safety strategies to cope with the specific threats their communities face, until such time as mine clearance can begin.

As part of this, we find out what mine- and unexploded ordnance contamination is present, and how it is affecting people. By doing so, we can and do put their needs, concerns, and priorities at the centre of mine action.

Distinguished Delegates, mine awareness - or as it is now more commonly known, mine risk reduction - is about raising public awareness of the threat. But it is also about finding community solutions. We are still learning about the most effective ways of promoting mine awareness. But we already have a great deal of experience in terms of working with communities - which means placing people, and in particular children, at the centre of everything we do.

In addition to UNICEF's comprehensive field presence in stable and unstable environments, and our engagement in both relief and development work, we have experience in, and institutional relationships with, key governmental and other partners, especially in health, education and related sectors.

We thus bring to mine action a focus on child rights, gender and humanitarian principles, and a commitment to rights based programming and capacity building. And this is demonstrated in our global projects, such as the mine awareness-and-risk reduction components of the International Mine Action Standards and the supplementary monitoring and evaluation guidelines; in our "how to" manuals (generously supported by the USA and Japan) - and in UNICEF's country projects and programmes in 34 countries, including Ethiopia.

There are two imperatives in mine action work: the humanitarian imperative to save people from death and injury, and the developmental imperative to restore normal life, security, peace and prosperity. Mine awareness is a vital component in each, in conjunction with the other four elements of mine action - advocacy; mine survey, marking and clearance; victim assistance; and destruction of mine stockpiles.

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates: The professionalism and high standards that this group has brought to its work are a tribute to all those who have been involved - including the donors who have so actively supported the development of mine action from its humble beginnings to its present scope and standard.

Yet the battle to rid the world of these insidious weapons has only just begun - and indeed, the challenges we face are reflected in the growing list of affected countries. Yet the indiscriminate cruelty and long-term destructiveness of anti-personnel mines has also helped fuel a growing sense around the world that these weapons cannot be tolerated a moment longer. Distinguished Delegates, let us harness the power of that conviction to help build the peaceful world to which every child is entitled.

Thank you.



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