British Army engineer Rae McGrath witnessed first-hand the horrific impact on civilians of landmines and unexploded bombs while serving in the army as well as while working for NGOs in Afghanistan. He also saw how these weapons were hindering reconstruction and aid delivery.
McGrath returned to the UK determined to find ways to protect communities and, in 1989, set up the Mines Advisory Group near Cockermouth in England's Lake District.
MAG’s initial role was to draw the world’s attention towards the issue of landmines. Between 1990 and 1991, MAG carried out assessment missions to Afghanistan and Cambodia, hoping their findings would mobilise governments and international agencies.
Deaths and injuries were common in Afghanistan, with returning refugees being directed back to villages still contaminated by landmines. Rae McGrath remembers:
“There was one young boy. He had stepped on a Soviet-laid POM-Z fragmentation mine. His family urged us to take his photograph to show the world the consequences of these weapons, which we did.”
The boy sadly died from his injuries just hours later. He was one of many who died or were injured there.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein started to lay hundreds of new minefields across the Kurdistan region still contaminated from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Civilians, often children, were the primary victims.
MAG undertook a mission to determine the extent of the problem.
In 1992, Lou McGrath joined his brother at MAG and the organisation joined forces with Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Handicap International (now Humanity and Inclusion), Physicians for Human Rights and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to form the coalition International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
The many years devoted to campaigns, research and lobbying against the arms trade paid off in 1997 when the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, banning the production and use of anti-personnel mines, was signed by 122 countries.
Later that year, the ICBL jointly received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts.
Before her death in August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales had been speaking out against the production and use of landmines and had made several visits to affected countries such as Angola.
Lady Diana developed close ties with MAG and was the keynote speaker at a MAG photographic exhibition in London. Two decades later, in April 2017, her son Prince Harry continued her work by helping MAG launch the Landmine Free 2025 campaign to lobby for a world free of landmines by 2025.
Alongside clearance efforts, MAG strove to involve and empower local communities through training and employment. The work challenged many perceptions and stigmas in countries where women and disabled people were generally regarded as second-class citizens and relegated to the lowest strata of society.
Rapid response and innovation
Many other aid and reconstruction agencies depend on safe, cleared areas and so MAG is often one of the first agencies into conflict zones. We sent emergency response teams into Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
From a small operation in 1989, MAG has become a major international organisation, setting new standards for humanitarian mine clearance and innovative approaches.
New threats, new responses
Almost twenty years on from the historic Ottawa Treaty, the world faced a new landmine emergency. The ISIS/Daesh insurgency in Iraq and Syria in 2014 resulted in a scale of landmine contamination not seen for decades, worsening an already complex humanitarian crisis.
Largely because of this new contamination in the Middle East, global deaths and injuries from landmines hit a ten-year high in 2015 – a staggering 75 per cent increase on those recorded in 2014.
Some of these locally-made landmines are sensitive enough to be triggered by a child but powerful enough to disable a tank.
MAG responded quickly by clearing the land in post-conflict areas, work which continues today. This has enabled the safe expansion of camps for Syrian refugees and internally displaced people, as well as making areas safe again for people wanting to return home to newly liberated areas.
On 4 April, 2017, Landmine Free 2025 was launched.
The Landmine Free 2025 campaign is a call to action to work together to do more, and faster, to make the world landmine free by 2025.
Prince Harry joined MAG and The HALO Trust at a joint event held at Kensington Palace, calling for governments worldwide to deliver on their promise to rid the world of landmines.
To date, 29 countries have been cleared of landmines, but 63 are still contaminated.
The campaign aims to re-energise support for landmine clearance and ensure people affected by landmines are not forgotten.