This week the UK government announced that the Falklands were landmine free. For a part of the world that has been blighted by the scars of war for over two decades, this is a landmark moment.
Now Falkland Islanders can return to the beaches and roam across their land without fear or restriction. A celebration took place Tuesday at Yorke Cove, where the last mine was ceremoniously detonated – opening the door to a new future. The removal of the last mine means that the UK has met its obligations under the Mine Ban Treaty and there are no landmines left in any British territories.
This sort of freedom is something that people in many of the places MAG works can only dream of. From Cambodia to Vietnam, Angola to Zimbabwe, landmines and other unexploded ordnance are a legacy of war that still affects over 60 million people in 60 states and territories around the world. At least 15 people are killed or injured every day by landmines and unexploded bombs, with the true figure probably much higher due to under-reporting. Almost half the civilian casualties are children.
Thanks to UK aid we are gradually overcoming this problem, freeing more people from lives lived in fear and opening up safe access to land, schools and health facilities. Since 2018, funding from the UK government has enabled MAG and our partners to clear over 80 million square meters of land, benefitting over one million people in eleven countries.
In East and Central Africa, the region I oversee, South Sudan is one of the most affected places and the work done by MAG and our national demining teams is helping the country take steps back to peace and prosperity, little by little.
Decades of conflict have left South Sudan heavily contaminated by landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs. MAG has worked in the country since 2004, clearing minefields and cluster munition strike sites with both manual and mechanical teams. Last year alone, we cleared nearly 3 million square meters of land and destroyed nearly 3,000 landmines and unexploded bombs, benefitting 84,000 people.
The complexity, intensity and scope of South Sudan’s past conflicts is reflected in the scale of the contamination. Five thousand deaths or injuries have been recorded – again, a likely understatement– but there is optimism that with UK and wider support South Sudan could be landmine free by 2026.
The return of land to communities reduces demand for other forms of humanitarian assistance, such as food aid and housing, while allowing returnees to resettle where they know it’s safe. As one village chief told MAG: “People were very scared and avoided this whole area. Now, we will grow maize, beans and sorghum here.”
Our teams also provide life-saving risk education to local communities, internally displaced people and returnees, ensuring that the most at-risk populations understand the dangers posed by mines and unexploded bombs.
South Sudan is just one example of a country being helped by British aid and expertise. For decades the UK has been a world-leader in demining, clearing land littered with the debris of past wars, and helping countries turn the corner from conflict to peace and prosperity.
The UK has always drawn deep on its diplomatic and development expertise in its demining work and the newly created Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – a merger of the old international development department and the Foreign Office - should enable us to achieve more synergies and impact than ever.
However, with the merger having taken place recently, and public funds – including aid – under pressure as a result of Covid-19, the future of UK funding for mine clearance is not guaranteed. The current contract runs out next year and its renewal is yet to be confirmed.
While of course there are competing priorities both at home and abroad, mine action is a cost-effective intervention that delivers huge returns on investment and changes lives for years into the future.
The UK Global Mine Action Programme, which commenced in July 2018, represents just over half a percent of the estimated £12 billion annual UK foreign aid budget but has benefitted over a million people. Crucially, it has enabled better access to education, including for girls (a strategic development priority), better access to healthcare, safe livelihoods, more economic activity and increased food security in countries affected by conflict.
UK aid is also paving the way for new trade deals which will be a key part of our international relationships post-Brexit. As we celebrate the achievements in the Falklands it is worth also looking forward to a future where nations like Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Laos, and Lebanon are also landmine free. With the support of governments around the world, including the UK, this is eminently possible.