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Gaining ground


Photo by: Courtesy of CMAC
A CMAC team removes a bomb from a community pond. For more information, see special report 2020.

Depite a shortfall in funding for demining in Cambodia, last week’s 11th Annual Meeting of States Parties to the Anti Personnel Mine Ban Convention has energised those driving the effort to remove all landmines from what they describe as the cradle of the global movement to ban them.

“I feel quite upbeat,” said Sister Denise Coghlan, a longtime advocate of the convention, which is also known as the Ottawa Treaty.

Cambodia has two assets that should not be underestimated, she said. It has “committed and competent mine clearance agencies, like CMAC, MAG and Halo Trust, and has developed a new technique called ‘land reliease', which can allow for swifter release of safe land and more efficient allocatiion of demining resources”.

“Land release” relies on a baseline survey that began in 2009 and is in the final stage of completion. “It provides a much more accurate estimation of where the landmines are, and has found that some land previously classified as possibly contaminated by landmines has already been cleared,” Coghlan said.

“The funding shortfall can be corrected and the job can be done,” she stressed.

Cambodia, which is a signatory of the convention, requested a 10-year extension to clear landmines in 2009. This timeframe, however, was based on the assumption that the level of funding would remain constant.

In 2009, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre received about US$11 million. This year it received about $8 million, said its director general Heng Ratana. Annually, CMAC clears about 80 per cent of all land landmines and unexploded ordance from Cambodian soil, he said.

The agency receives about 12,000 phone calls a year from village residents and local officials asking it to remove landmines and UXO. In 2009, it had 2,300 staff; the number fell to 1,800 this year.

“It is becoming more painful to make decisions, more difficult to decide how to allocate resources,” Heng Ratana said. “There may be 100 communities in need, but we can support only 10. Ideally, we’d like to respond within 72 hours, but sometimes they have to wait months, and to maximise results we have to wait for numerous calls from a specific area.”

Still, he said, the conference provided a venue for  reiterating three key points. First, landmines and UXO remain a matter of life and death for many Cambodians, especially the rural poor. Second, their removal is necessary for development and economic growth because this frees up land for agriculture, schools, health centres and roads. Third, if the Ottawa Treaty’s signatories want it to work they will need to demonstrate greater commitment and responsibility.

Cambodia has been doing its share, Heng Ratana said. The government is increasing funding of demining, mainly through the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. It is also sharing its technical expertise with demining agencies in the Middle East, South America and Africa. This South-South co-operation has seen Cambodian deminers dispatched to three continents and demining teams from other countries arriving here for training, he said.

Heng Ratana described the Ottawa Treaty as a global humanitarian breakthrough, but cautioned that breakthroughs need to be nudged forward. “If we can’t push for the elimination of landmines, what will this say about our other hopes? It is such a basic humanitarian issue that if we ensure its success it may provide the momentum to push for other humanitarian conventions,” he explained.

Coghlan pointed out that the movement to ban landmines – which began with the release of the report Coward’s War: Landmines in Cambodia by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights in1991 –  became “truly international” when Cambodian amputees began a petition and then started attending international conferences to tell their stories. Four former soldiers from different factions joined together to call for a global ban on the landmines they had stepped on, she said.

A new book Ambassadors Before They Knew It has been released this week. It covers the history of the campaign to ban landmines through the eyes of Song Kosal and Tun Channareth: victims who became advocates. Their story begins in Cambodia in 1991 and the campaign is gaining ground, says Coghlan.



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