Demining in Colombia must remain a priority

Following the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action last month, ABColombia reflects on the ongoing presence of antipersonnel mines in Colombia. 

While mines may have been planted with the aim of reaching other armed groups or the military, it is civilians and communities who are the main victims. 

Until you see the effects of landmines every day and you have to live knowing they are out there, you can never really understand. We are afraid to enter certain parts of the finca (farm) because of the landmines. I have seen people have accidents; mutilated, without feet, and hands.” (Resident of Canyon de las Hermosas, Colombia

Anti-personnel mines in Colombia  

Following more than five decades of internal conflict, Colombia is second to Afghanistan in being the world’s most densely landmined country, suffering from widespread landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contamination. Throughout the armed conflict, mines and explosives were planted across rural areas by armed groups. Despite being a weapon that violates International Humanitarian Law, Colombia has seen nearly 12,000 injuries and deaths as a result of landmines since 1990. 

This is sadly not an issue of the past, however, as armed groups continue to replant mines throughout the country. According to the ICRC, in 2020 there were 389 victims of explosive hazards in Colombia, the highest number in four years. While progress has been made in demining various municipalities, forests and nature reserves such as those in Chocó and Antioquia remain heavily mined. 

In February 2021 the Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) recognised the planting of landmines as a war crime, recording that in 2020, 41 municipalities with an active presence of armed groups saw the installation of antipersonnel mines

Demining: a means to build peace in Colombia

In a move towards removing these mines, Colombia has been a State Party to the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction since April 2014. However, difficulties remain; in November 2020, Colombia was granted an extension – until December 2025 – to meet the objectives of the Ottawa Convention and eliminate antipersonnel mines throughout the country. 

In 2015, part of the negotiations between the former President Santos and the FARC culminated in two pilot projects of humanitarian demining – in El Orejón, Briceño (Antioquia) and Santa Helena, Mesetas (Meta) – whereby ex-combatants cooperated with national and international organisations by providing information on landmine locations, allowing for the joint-effort clearing of 39,215 square metres and the destruction of 70 improvised explosive devices.

Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord followed these pilots in the creation of the humanitarian demining organisation Humanicemos DH, to enable FARC ex-combatants to engage in demining as a means to contribute to the peace process and reincorporate into society. As the first civil mine action organisation in the world to emerge following a Peace Accord and be led by a female ex-combatant, the organisation’s make up of 94 former FARC-EP combatants, including 25 women, is historic. 

Having undergone training in landmine clearance since 2018, in March 2021 the organisation found its first antipersonnel mine, in the Unión Cordillera community of La Montañita, Caquetá. 

This significant step towards non-repetition is the result of the joint work of the Government, former combatants and the United Nations.” (UN Verification Mission in Colombia

The recent UN Verification Mission notes, however, that funding still needs to be allocated to support the former FARC-EP combatants’ commitment to humanitarian demining, in order to advance pilot programmes. 

This obstacle of funding issues has contributed to delaying the progress in Humanicemos DH operations. It is reported that in May 2018 the OAS withdrew from the project due to receiving US funding, which they argued prevented them from working with former FARC combatants (who remain on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations). Along with bureaucratic delays following the change in national government, the OAS withdrawal delayed the implementation process as the organisation needed an external entity to certify their capacity for demining

In March 2020 this obstacle was solved through the allocation of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) for this purpose. 

Although it is true that there were delays in the process, we celebrate the signing of this agreement and we are now prepared to move forward so that humanitarian demining operations can be carried out by former FARC combatants.” (Programme Manager of United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) Colombia, March 2020)

Clear direction from the national government alongside funding and commitment from the international community is crucial to support the demining process in Colombia. 

Undermining peace for civilians and communities 

In the four years since the signing of the Peace Accord, the majority of the victims of landmines have been civilians, which seems to indicate that new explosives are being installed in areas that were previously thought to be free from contamination. 

In 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that 69% of victims of explosive devices and anti-personnel mines were civilians, 17 of which were children. This percentage constitutes a considerable increase from the 45% reported civilian victims in 2019

Beyond the physical victims of direct incidents, whole communities can also become victims of confinement or displacement; as a result of the known presence of antipersonnel mine(s), they must adapt their daily lives to mitigate the fear and legitimate risks of a mine-related incident occurring.

[Statistics of incidents and direct victims] are not the only indicator of the impact that these explosive devices have in civilian areas … So are the communities that cannot peacefully cultivate, collect water or send children to study because of the danger posed by traveling in these areas. ” (IRC Colombia, our translation

According to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia (March 2021), the indigenous peoples have been disproportionately impacted by the continuous use of anti-personnel mines in their territories. In particular, the report notes the confinement of 2,107 Emberá Indigenous Peoples in Murindo, Antioquia, while 140 were forced to displace. In February 2021, two members of the Emberá community in Antioquia were injured as a result of mines planted by armed groups, one of them being a 13-year-old boy lost his right leg

These incidents are not isolated but reflect the broader humanitarian crisis faced by indigenous communities, who are often trapped in the middle of a territorial dispute between armed actors

Armed groups in some areas of the country such as Chocó, Antioquia, Nariño and Norte de Santander are using antipersonnel mines as part of their military strategy, in territorial disputes with the neo-paramilitary groups. Between January and May 2020, Pares report that 92% of the victims of antipersonnel mines occurred in areas with ELN presence. Reports also show a correlation between the placement of landmines and coca plantations, suggesting their use by armed groups to prevent coca crop eradication campaigns. 

Looking forward

The International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action commemorates the necessity for mining “awareness”. In this vein, demining operation measures must be accompanied with continued support for education regarding the danger of landmines and other explosives, and necessary precautions communities can take in the event of discovering any. 

In places where security conditions and the presence of organised armed groups do not allow the arrival of humanitarian demining, the only tool available for the protection of the civilian population is Education in the Risk of Mines and the promotion of safe behaviours among the communities, with the hope of avoiding new accidents.”  (El Espectador our translation)

Nevertheless, such community education and demining efforts must be accompanied with comprehensive policies to approach the issue of armed actors in Colombia, who undermine operations and put communities at risk. 

Please also see our most recent briefing document with recommendations to the UN Security Council, including the request to appoint a group of Experts in organised crime to examine the situation in Colombia.