Anti-Vehicle Mines: A Threat to Human Security

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Landmine victim, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Courtesy: BAHAG Richard Atero de Guzman/Flickr)

Landmine victim, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Courtesy: BAHAG Richard Atero de Guzman/Flickr)

What is the common denominator between a farmer ploughing land in Cambodia, a humanitarian aid worker delivering food in South Sudan, United Nations peacekeepers protecting civilians in Mali, and military forces patrolling disputed territory in Ukraine? It is that these are all actual cases of people whose carriers have hit anti-vehicle mines (AVM) in the course of their work.

Larger and several times more explosive than anti-personnel mines, AVMs detonate after contact with a vehicle. While AVMs are typically emplaced to target military vehicles, they do not discriminate between military and civilian targets. The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) documented one hundred and thirty-seven AVM accidents in the first nine months of 2015 alone, killing or injuring more than 490 people, including many civilians.

AVMs are particularly threatening in states emerging from violent conflict. Unlike anti-personnel mines, AVMs are rarely triggered by the pressure of a single individual or by traditional, non-mechanized farming. Like ticking time bombs, AVMs typically go unnoticed for years, posing a latent threat to post-conflict recovery, especially when badly needed development finally materializes in a warn-torn state.

Cambodia stands as a striking, tragic example. As development has taken off in that country, the number of vehicles for transportation and farming has increased considerably. Indeed, in an effort to improve agricultural productivity, Cambodia has been promoting the use of agricultural machinery. Mechanized farming with tractors and heavy ploughs is progressively replacing manual labor—raising, in the process, Cambodians’ vulnerability to the ticking time bombs littering the countryside. To prove the point: in 2012, AVMs caused more casualties in Cambodia than did anti-personnel mines. The following year, the same numbers were recorded for both mine types.

Evidence of the consequences of AVM contamination—scattered for many years—is now being gathered more systematically. The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and expert organizations like GICHD, have undertaken significant efforts to generate comprehensive assessments and analyses of the contamination. We can now see more clearly than ever before that AVM contamination is a global issue. According to the renowned organization Landmine Monitor, AVMs affected more than fifty-nine countries and territories between 1999 and 2013, resulting in more than 6,000 casualties. The impact on development has been significant as well.

AVMs are not simply a legacy of remote wars. On the contrary, numerous international agencies and nongovernmental organizations have meticulously documented the use of AVMs in present-day conflicts, including those taking place in Ukraine, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The increased use of AVMs in the ongoing conflict in Mali suggests that these devices have become a weapon of choice for insurgents; in addition to harming civilians throughout the country, AVMs pose a major threat to the UN peacekeeping mission there as well.

The presence of AVMs in conflict areas also seriously hampers efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance, endangering humanitarian operators and denying civilian populations the assistance they need and have a right to expect. A recent grave accident affecting the World Food Program in South Sudan, in which one of their trucks detonated an AVM injuring two aid workers and causing severe material damage, is but one troubling example. The logistical challenge of finding alternative routes and means to deliver critical assistance is enormous. Air dropping aid is sometimes the only remaining option—at a cost up to 100 times more per each kilogram transported over one kilometer.


The 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention outlawed the use of anti-personnel mines. States parties to the convention agreed that the humanitarian concerns stemming from those weapons heavily outweighed their military value. This balance was not as clear for anti-vehicle mines at that time—relatively limited evidence was available about the impact of AVMs back then, compared to the well-documented data concerning anti-personnel mines—and as a result, AVMs were not included in the convention.

The international community did not stand still, however. In 1996, states agreed to a handful of technical restrictions on the use of AVMs in the frame of Amended Protocol II of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The latter prohibits, for instance, AVMs equipped with anti-handling devices, designed to detonate when the mines are removed. States discussed additional restrictions between 2001 and 2005, but no further arrangements emerged. Still, some states adopted unilateral measures going beyond the provisions contained in Amended Protocol II. The significance of these measures—and especially their political signal—is not to be underestimated. Their nature, however, remains voluntary.

There are many possible pathways to consider in addressing the humanitarian and developmental impact of AVMs, ranging from technical solutions to political processes, and a host of “simple” technical measures worth exploring. For example, many AVM contain only small amounts of metal, which renders their detection and clearance a highly difficult, sometimes impossible, task; ensuring that AVMs produced in the future include features that enable their detectability would represent a considerable improvement, and old AVMs could be refurbished to meet such requirements. Adding self-deactivation mechanisms would help as well. Further, the use of sensitive fuses, which aim to prompt the detonation of the mine with only minimal ground vibration, could be restricted. States could agree to prohibit the transfer of mines not meeting these technical standards. Targeted risk education would have an immediate, positive impact in affected communities and would tangibly reduce the harm caused by AVMs in the first place. Technical fixes and risk-education measures would also help to mitigate the detrimental impact of AVMs on lives and livelihoods.

Given the now-well-documented impact of these weapons, however, further efforts to mitigate their impact are due. The upcoming review conference of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 2016, which aims to assess achievements and devise responses to remaining—and new—challenges to the scope and relevance of the CCW, offers an important opportunity for movement on the threat of AVMs. Some states have already signaled their interest to revitalize political discussions on these issues.

The humanitarian and developmental impact of AVMs is significant and far better documented today than ever before. States have a responsibility to find feasible, tangible responses to stem the threat of these weapons, be they technical fixes, political measures, or both. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it is up to states to “explore all possible avenues for ensuring that these weapons no longer harm civilians, impede the delivery of humanitarian aid or obstruct social and economic development.”


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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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