Disarmament Insight


Monday, 27 October 2008

Uprooting the Evil in the Fields

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.” Gandalf in J.R.R. TOLKIEN, The Lord of the Rings

As mentioned in an earlier post on this blog a team of UNIDIR researchers working on the project “The Road From Oslo: Analysis of Negotiations to Address the Humanitarian Effects of Cluster Munitions” recently spent a week in Southern Lebanon, with the generous support of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) there.

The 2006 conflict, during which Israel launched massive amounts of cluster munitions into Southern Lebanon, and its aftermath undeniably played an important role in pushing international efforts to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians forward. Although much has been written about how unexploded submunitions pose a humanitarian hazard and constrain development, to see the contaminated fields with one’s own eyes and hear the stories of survivors with one’s own ears conveys a different, deeper understanding of what it means to live and work on land that is contaminated by hundreds of thousands of unexploded submunitions.

Two years after the end of the conflict, people are still falling victims to dangerous unexploded submunitions lying around in their orchards and fields. 20 civilians were killed and 195 injured between August 2006 and September 2008 according to UN MACC (figures up until June ‘08 are available here) Farmers having no other source of income find themselves forced to harvest their crops and till their fields, knowing full well that these have not yet been cleared, or are only free of submunitions on the surface. Explosive submunitions can be ploughed into the earth or move underground because of rain and snow, and surface again much later. We met one farmer who suffered serious injuries to his arm when his tractor drove over a submunition in a field that he had ploughed around a dozen times since the end of the conflict.

Clearance personnel too have paid a heavy price already. 39 have been injured and 7 killed in clearance accidents, as per end of September 2008 according to UNMACC. One of the most recent victims was a Belgian UNIFIL deminer who died in the beginning of September.

Despite the urgency of preventing more cluster munitions victims and making the land save for agriculture and reconstruction, the interest of donor countries is at risk of dwindling, and clearance organizations fear running out of money for their operations in South Lebanon . When we were there, many of them told us that they would have to demobilize at least some of their clearance teams by the beginning of next year. One organization already shut down operations in the middle of this month. More recently, there are positive signs donors such as Australia and the U.S. are stepping up to the plate with further funds.

Cluster munitions clearance is a complicated affair, in many regards different from de-mining and it may be difficult for donors to understand why initial cost and time estimates continue to be revised and new funds are being asked for.

Cluster munitions clearance in South Lebanon has to take account of many factors and constraints besides the availability of financial resources and qualified personnel. Clearing residential areas, cultivated land and land required for infrastructure projects are given priority. The agricultural cycle has to be taken into account to allow harvesting of tobacco, olives and bananas in time, as well as seasonal constraints, moving clearance to coastal regions in winter when snow is falling inland. Systematic clearance of submunitions lying on the ground may be sufficient in some areas, but depending on soil conditions, others require additional sub-surface clearance, a much more time consuming and resource intensive process. All the wile, ensuring the safety of clearance personnel is paramount, though difficult.

Contrary to a systematically laid mine-field one cannot predict with certainty how many unexploded submunitions are within a cluster strike’s footprint and where the individual submunitions are located in the area to be cleared. In the days following the cease-fire, many unexploded submunitions were removed from streets and orchards by the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah and landowners (some Lebanese farmers paying Palestinians to collect the submunitions littering their plantations). This removed an immediate threat to civilians’ lives but because the locations of these submunitions were not recorded, it is all the more difficult to accurately determine the centre of a cluster munition strike today. And of course, there is the distinct possibility that more strike areas are yet to be discovered. In January this year, it was 10 new clearance sites per month.

Consequently, estimates concerning priorities, number and extent of areas to be cleared, and the resources and time required have had to be periodically revised.

The availability of Israeli cluster strike data would greatly facilitate matters. Israel "supplied maps to UNIFIL identifying areas suspected of containing unexploded ordnance, including cluster munitions", but these are inadequate for clearance purposes. With detailed, accurate and complete information about the quantity, type and location of cluster munitions dropped, UNMACC would know how many more strike areas there are and how many more square metres remain to be cleared. Clearance organizations would be in a position to better plan ahead and distribute their resources more efficiently. It should therefore be in everybody’s, not least in donors’ interest to call on Israel to release this data, as France did in September this year.

Maya Brehm

Photo: "Looking out from above Safaad al Battikh M42 clearance zone" by J. Borrie