Can Cambodia meet its target to remove landmines by 2025?
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Can Cambodia meet its target to remove landmines by 2025?

TWO decades after signing the Ottawa Treaty – otherwise known as the Mine Ban Convention – and making an ambitious pledge to clear all anti-personnel landmines from its territory within ten years, Cambodia’s north-west border region remains littered with explosive relics left behind from thirty years of internal strife. After missing the initial deadline to rid itself of landmines, Cambodia secured an extension until 2020, but this target has already been pushed back to 2025.

Cambodia’s government is due to release its long-delayed National Mine Action Strategy (NMAS) for 2018-2025 by the end of the year, setting out how this goal will be reached. Yet after 20 years of removal work carried out by state-run bodies and international NGOs, only half of the affected land area has been cleared and the most densely-contaminated districts remain to be tackled, leading many to question whether the 2025 target is realistic.

Progress has undoubtedly been made: annual casualties have reduced from more than 4,000 in the mid-1990s to less than 100 last year. Yet until the problem is fully eradicated, the deadly remnants of past wars hidden in Cambodia’s forests, fields and waterways will continue to maim civilians and restrict development, in a country which remains among the poorest nations in Southeast Asia.

Twenty years on from the Mine Ban Convention and with the government set to release its new NMAS, this report examines the hurdles to be overcome by the demining sector and asks whether Cambodia can get back on track to rid itself of landmines by 2025.

The north-west of the country remains extensively contaminated with anti-personnel landmines, which were laid during the Khmer Rouge-era and two decades of internal conflict which followed. Particularly notorious is the 1,046km-long K-5 mine belt installed along the Thai border in the mid-1980s by Vietnamese forces, to prevent the return of exiled Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The area is thought to be the world’s most densely-contaminated post-war minefield, concealing up to 2,400 devices per linear kilometre.

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Whilst 21 north-western provinces are the worst-affected by landmines, several provinces in the north-east – notably Kratie and Stung Treng – are heavily contaminated with cluster munitions dropped by US forces during the Vietnam War. In total, around 1,640km² of land is contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO) across Cambodia, of which at least 860km² is plagued by anti-personnel mines – the type of device covered by the Ottawa Treaty. As Cambodia is not a signatory to the separate Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the removal of cluster bomblets scattered across the north-east is not governed by the 2025 deadline.

The impact of contamination has been overwhelming. Since the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, landmines and unexploded bombs have killed 19,750 and injured more than 44,900, many of whom are now amputees. At the local level, victims’ livelihoods have been destroyed and their families have been plunged into poverty, trapped by the burden of care. At the national level, UXO contamination has hampered the development of critical infrastructure and rendered swathes of land unsuitable for agriculture, leaving Cambodia languishing among the region’s poorest nations.

Since 1992, state-run clearance operator the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) has worked in affected provinces alongside international NGOs including Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the Halo Trust, to clear the mines. The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) was established in 2000 to co-ordinate efforts across the sector, which has largely been funded by foreign governments. Major donors include the US, UK, Japan and Australia.

The effort has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. The number of those killed or wounded annually has reduced dramatically from 4,200 in 1996, to just 83 last year. In excess of 1,500km² of land has been cleared and released. Yet with at least the same amount still contaminated, Cambodia looks certain to miss the 2025 deadline, raising fears over securing future funding.

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How can Cambodia make greater strides toward ending its UXO scourge?

A high proportion of land released in the last few years has been only sparsely-contaminated, leaving many of the most densely-mined areas still to be tackled. This means there is much harder work ahead: clearing more densely-contaminated land will inevitably be more time-consuming, expensive, and pose greater logistical difficulties for operators.

A UN-commissioned report released last year by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) highlighted this problem. The report cited the preference to first tackle sparsely-contaminated land as a major concern, noting that out of 147km² released in 2015, only 1.98km² was classified as densely-contaminated. The GICHD concluded that ‘there are too many cleared minefields with no/small number of mines’, recommending a shift in focus to ‘priority areas’ where ‘dense anti-personnel landmine contamination’ poses a ‘high threat to local communities’.

The findings suggest that the CMAA favours gauging success according to the amount of land cleared, to present a picture of rapid progress and satisfy donor demands for instantly measurable results. This has come at the expense of tackling the more densely-contaminated areas.

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As clearance efforts drag deeper into a third decade, there are concerns that funding will dry-up as donor fatigue sets in. Cambodia is now viewed as an ‘old hotspot’ where past wars and their impacts have been replaced by more immediate crises erupting in other parts of the world. Long-term donors may look to redirect funding to the Middle East, or even elsewhere in Southeast Asia given the recent violence in Burma and the Philippines. The US Ambassador to Cambodia suggested as much earlier this year, when he indicated the Phnom Penh government should foot more of the bill for clearance work as Cambodia moves toward lower-middle income status.

The government’s long-awaited new NMAS will be crucial in setting-out the path to future progress and persuading international donors not to give up their support. Given the vast extent of contamination, the new strategy must be realistic regarding the time needed for removal work whilst prioritizing the clearance of densely-contaminated areas along the border with Thailand.

Aside from state-led attempts to lend the programme fresh impetus, clearance operators have trialed new methods and technologies aimed at making future removal work more efficient. In 2015, the CMAC deployed specially-trained bomb-removal divers in the country’s waterways for the first time, whilst international NGOs have trialled the use of advanced metal detectors and robots which have the ability to defuse bombs without causing an explosion, lessening the human risks of demining work.

Despite the prospect of technological innovations, many of these products are still at the testing phase. Demining is slow and painstaking work, and for many years will still likely have to be carried-out using relatively simple hand-held tools, at great personal risk to de-miners. This danger was tragically evidenced by the deaths of two de-miners earlier this year in Pailin province.

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As the decades have passed, Cambodia and the legacies of past wars in Indochina have drifted out of the headlines, as new zones of conflict have emerged in the Middle East and beyond. As a result, fears over donor fatigue and funding shortfalls have become all the more real and immediate.

This has generated concern that Cambodia’s landmine and UXO problem will never be fully overcome. Demining is expensive and time-consuming; inherent factors which need to be accepted by all stakeholders – governments, clearance operators and donors – if sustained efforts to remove landmines are to continue. Prioritizing the most densely-contaminated areas is an essential step toward unlocking Cambodia’s full development potential and minimizing the danger to civilians.

A new NMAS which recognizes the extent of contamination and displays a determination to tackle the worst-affected areas, along with sustained international funding commitments, would help Cambodia move closer toward ending the deadly legacy of conflicts long-forgotten – even if we must accept that their impacts will continue to be felt, for at least a few more years beyond 2025.