This article was originally published in The Spectator.
How has Covid affected your life? For those in the world's war zones, the impact of the pandemic has been truly devastating. Coronavirus is one of many dangers facing those who have fled violence and bloodshed. It has also left refugees with agonising choices: to remain in lockdown in camps, where resources may become scarce; or to return home, and risk death.
In north east Nigeria, which is at the epicentre of a grave humanitarian crisis, there was a landmine casualty every single day for the first 20 weeks of last year. Here, food and other humanitarian aid has been disrupted by the pandemic. Strains on the system have prompted the government to accelerate its plans to resettle displaced people, including to areas heavily contaminated with improvised landmines planted by Boko Haram. Desperate people forage for food and firewood in areas riddled with explosives with devastating consequences.
In Iraq, Covid-related issues led to thousands abandoning the safety of internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps and returning to areas still littered with deadly improvised landmines laid by Isis. Some of those families fled for fear of Covid spreading in the camps; others because Covid restrictions meant they could no longer travel to farmland and places of work. When they did return, families ran the risk of entering homes rigged up with deadly Isis booby-traps.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and its partners work to clear landmines from countries including Nigeria and Iraq. Over 80 million square meters of land are cleared every year. But while MAG’s 5,000-plus staff cleared at least 115,000 explosive devices globally last year, the pandemic impeded its work. This means that landmines which would and should have been cleared remain buried in the ground.
All too often, children with their lives ahead of them step on these explosives. From Vietnam to Angola, over 60 million people in 60 countries live in fear of landmines and unexploded bombs. At least 19 people are killed or injured every day. More than half the civilian casualties are children.
‘Barely a day goes by without someone being injured or killed by a landmine or other explosive here,' says Zainab Waziri, a team leader for MAG in Borno State, Nigeria. 'People here have lived in fear for so long, that many children do not know what it is to be safe. And those who flee for their lives are at higher risk as they travel across unknown land in search of safety. Children’s natural curiosity puts them at the greatest risk of all.'
Since 2018, funding from the British taxpayer has enabled MAG to clear landmines around the world. Covid has, of course, brought new and acute pressures on the UK government’s aid spending. But clearing landmines is a cause which it makes sense for Britain to continue to support.
The clearance of landmines and other lethal debris of war is British soft power at its most tangible. Its material impact is to enable people to live without fear. And we measure it in the most concrete terms: metres of roads made accessible; acres of land rendered productive; schools, towns and villages made safe.
This year, the UK will assume the presidency of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the landmark ban on the use of these horrific and indiscriminate weapons which is marking its tenth anniversary. This presidency is a unique opportunity in 2021 to demonstrate the best of British soft power in action with a renewed long-term commitment to the clearance of the remnants of war.
Such a commitment must be regarded as a form of humanitarian investment. It makes financial sense because it ultimately reduces reliance on aid. In places blighted by the legacy of conflict, clearing landmines is the prerequisite to progress on many of the UK government’s other priorities, including Covid relief and girls’ education. Clearing contaminated land will also aid the economic growth which is vital to any global post-pandemic recovery. In countries like Lebanon and South Sudan, for instance, our programmes mean agricultural land can be brought back into use.
Clearing landmines also makes humanitarian sense because it prevents the appalling suffering of innocent people. All around the world, British taxpayers' money is spent making places riddled with landmines safe. It's vital that this work continues.