As the world marks International Mine Awareness this month, it is time to make a landmine-free world a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). In Ukraine, Russia has become the latest state to lay such explosives as it retreats from around the capital Kyiv. We are witnessing a breach of international humanitarian law and a threat to sustainable development—like inequality or climate change.
The global human toll from anti-personnel mines is well documented. 2020 was the sixth consecutive year with high recorded incidents from mines and explosive remnants of war. According to the 2021 Landmine Monitor report, an annual 20 percent increase in casualties brought the total to over 7,000 casualties in 2020. Mines are fundamentally indiscriminate weapons: in 2021, 80 percent of all casualties caused by mines were civilians, and at least half are children. At the same time, mines are the number one threat to post-conflict peacekeeping forces. These human tragedies are the most visible impact, and they often overshadow the enduring threat to sustainable and equitable development.
Mines continue to affect more than 60 million people. When lurking explosives forbid free movement, impossible decisions accumulate. Either children do not go to school, or they cross lands strewn with explosives to learn to read. Families risk their lives to cultivate their land, or they risk certain starvation. Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) cannot return, depriving areas of the people most invested in a region’s restoration.
A mere $2 to plant, each mine costs $1,000 to remove. The prohibitive expense means mines are left in situ. Yet without a land free of mines, development is next to impossible. Without development, a return to war in a post-conflict state becomes more likely. Years, even decades, after conflict, this is the legacy of laying mines: a place locked in its past. No place in the world is that more evident than in Karabakh, where, in the early 1990s, the territory became the most intensely-mined area on Earth after the first Nagorno-Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Won back in a second contest in 2020, no IDPs are yet to return because of the dangers still posed while intensive and expensive mine clearance continues.
But some may ask why an SDG is necessary when we have the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The convention banned the use, transfer, stockpiling, or production of anti-personnel mines. Since it became law in 1999, it has delivered remarkable results. Global stockpiles have decreased by 55 million since the treaty was adopted. State actors, including non-signatories, have largely stopped using anti-personnel mines. Only Russia, Myanmar, and Armenia have laid them afresh in the years after its signing. However, most contaminated states are not on track to clear their lands of mines. Progress has also waned in the universal take-up of the treaty.
A change in approach may be needed to reverse faltering progress. Despite the disproportionate costs land mines pose to civilians, many cling to them as justification for contending with overwhelming security threats: fear outweighs the arguments against them. Moving the issue to an SDG framework from a military and defensive one could help bring those non-signatories into the fold. They can then begin taking incremental steps towards the goals initially laid out in the treaty—such as destroying all stockpiles within four years of ratifying the treaty—without fearing that they are losing a critical part of their security architecture. Twenty-two of the remaining fifty-six contaminated states are non-signatories and must feature in plans for a mine-free world.
While state actors have mostly stopped using landmines, use amongst non-state actors has proliferated, particularly with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Since 2013, there has been a surge in their usage in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with similar patterns emerging in West Africa. These actors feel little pressure from state treaties. Here, we need to find ways to incorporate demining into a broader framework of conflict resolution and sustainable development that comes with an SDG lens. After establishing ceasefires, governments must ensure demining’s benefits are spread equally for livelihood and development outcomes, according to other interlocking SDGs. In turn, this can strengthen and sustain peace in a virtuous cycle.
Moreover, there remains much to improve in clearance. According to Mine Action Review’s performance assessment in 2020, less than 25 percent of national mine clearance programs rated “good” or “very good.” More funding is needed. But humanitarian costs are spiraling worldwide, with a dizzying array of causes requiring resources. Were it to feature as an SDG, a more secure and sustainable financing structure for demining could be mobilized. Once in place, it would be easier to safeguard against other prevailing pressures.
That funding is essential. Regardless of various countries’ stockpiles, any mine currently in the ground can kill or maim. Landmines will remain a threat to a range of other SDGs until their removal. Without demining, the land remains unusable. It remains impossible to build resilient infrastructure. People cannot move freely. Places cannot move forward and poverty becomes inescapable
Setting goals marshals action. An SDG for a mine-free world may be what is required to finish the job started over a quarter of a century ago by the Mine Ban Treaty.
Hugh Martin is a former British Army officer and founder and CEO of the security, intelligence, and risk management company Hawki Worldwide.