Mine risk education (MRE) is one of the five pillars of mine action. And the reason for that is simple: if done well, it saves lives.
But MRE has not received the attention it deserves for over a decade because there are no formal structures in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention scrutinising its implementation and, so far, the focus has been on getting the mines out of the ground and achieving the 2025 target to become landmine free.
It is essential to do MRE to teach people to stay safe until clearance can be completed. And, on a smaller scale, it should be done afterwards as well, to ensure people are equipped to deal with any residual contamination. In addition, in some cases, where clearance is not possible, it is the only risk reduction strategy.
Given ongoing conflicts which have resulted in the laying of improvised mines and booby-traps, as well as large population displacement, casualty rates have increased over the past four years. Half of the casualties are children, mostly boys.
This is unacceptable.
The need to change this and to raise the profile of MRE is now acknowledged by many state parties, donors and operators who are meeting in Oslo this week for the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention. The Oslo Action Plan includes a stand-alone section for risk education, with input from the recently revived Advisory Group on Explosive Ordnance Risk Education, co-led by MAG and UNICEF. While this is excellent progress, we need to make sure that it is followed by practical measures that lead to more and better quality MRE to address the spike in casualties.
When we say that MRE needs to be done well we mean it needs to be relevant to the local threat and to the dangerous behaviour that leads to injury and death. Returnees to places in Iraq or Nigeria are at an extremely high risk from recently laid mines and improvised devices, while people opening new land for cultivation in Cambodia face a threat from explosive ordnance that has been there for 40 years and more. Risk-taking behaviours differ between women, girls, boys and men, influenced by their patterns of mobility and their roles in the community. Accordingly, risk education messages and delivery methods must be well tailored. MRE is particularly effective when done in an integrated manner with explosive ordnance disposal or clearance.
As with any attempt to effect behaviour change, there are limits to MRE’s preventative effect. People may choose to go into dangerous areas even if they are fully aware of the risks in order to reach water or to plough land for their livelihoods because they have no other choice. As long as clearance is not an option, mine action needs to reach out to organisations in other sectors who can provide alternatives to secure safe livelihoods.
As we advance towards the Landmine Free 2025 objective, the sector needs to continue exploring innovative ways on messaging and how to promote safer behaviour, including making use of social media and new technology. In addition, we need to reach out of our mine action silo to explore better coordination with the wider humanitarian and development sector to make sure people are not forced to take risks that put their lives in danger.