Takoma Park, MD—As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) prepares for a summit in Wales on September 4 and 5, as part of plans to wind down military operations in Afghanistan, Handicap International calls on all International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troop-contributing nations to immediately mark and clear areas contaminated by explosive remnants of war (ERW). The countries should provide non-discriminating and impartial assistance to all the victims of the conflict by financing mine action activities through United Nations pooled funds.
Military bases and firing ranges are now being closed at a rapid rate, but have not been systematically cleared of ERW stored, abandoned or used by military personnel. Furthermore, all the maps of land contaminated by ISAF operations are not yet being made available and people are not sufficiently aware of the risks they face, hampering efforts to prevent further civilian casualties. ERW from ISAF’s operations now contaminate hundreds of square miles of land, posing a threat to Afghan lives. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the number of reported civilian casualties of ERW increased dramatically in 2013 and 2014.
NATO will be holding a summit in Newport, Wales, on September 4 and 5, 2014 as it prepares to bring an end to 13 years of military operations in Afghanistan. The summit hopes to secure the successful withdrawal of ISAF by ensuring the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces and their ability to maintain the country’s security through a training and support mission beyond December 2014.
Handicap International will use this opportunity to remind governments attending the summit of the need to mark and clear all areas contaminated by their ERW and to finance a wide-reaching victim assistance program as part of the transition process. ERW marking, clearance, removal and destruction as well as victim assistance are compulsory under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol V, to which most of the ISAF troop-contributing nations are party.
Since 2010, international military bases, including firing ranges, have been closing and their perimeters progressively handed back for civilian use. However, they have not been systematically cleared of ERW. According to a report published by the Washington Post in April 2014, at least 800 square miles of land has been contaminated by grenades, rockets and mortar shells that could explode at any time, killing or wounding civilians. More than 300 battle sites are also littered with ERW used by ISAF. These risk areas have not been properly mapped. The current lack of data hinders a comprehensive estimation of the clearance costs and the exact surface to be cleared.
“One of the key challenges is to obtain precise data from the international military forces,” says Anna Nijsters, Director of ENNA, the Brussels-based European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan, of which Handicap International is a member. “The governments of ISAF troop-contributing nations, including the major European powers and the United States, have to allocate an ERW clearance budget and define a clearance strategy, despite a step-up in troop withdrawals.”
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported a 14% increase in civilian casualties caused by ERW during the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013 (206 civilian casualties in total; 76% of whom were children). This follows a dramatic 63% increase in 2013 compared to 2012 (343 casualties in total, 83% of whom were children).
Rahmatulla Gholam Reza became a landmine victim at the age of nine. Today, he is an active member of the Ban Advocates, a group of landmine and cluster munitions victims organized by Handicap International to ensure that the needs of ERW accident survivors are understood and argued for at the international level, and ultimately met.
Rahmatulla fears for Afghan civilians, especially for the children. “My country was already one of the most contaminated countries in the world, even before ISAF intervened,” he says. “We need to ensure that the NATO-member countries meet their commitments to mark and clear ERW so they do not lead to the loss of more child casualties. I lost both of my legs as a child when I stepped on a landmine and it completely changed my life. I don’t want to see that happening to anybody else.”
Handicap International has worked in Afghanistan for almost two decades, since 1996. The organization has witnessed a rise in the damage caused by ERW, and is outraged by the unbearable situation facing civilians. More than 180 people, including several mine and ERW victims, work for Handicap International in Afghanistan. Their efforts focus on physical rehabilitation, victim assistance, and mine/ERW risk education.
To learn more about Handicap International's work in Afghanistan, please visit http://www.handicap-international.us/afghanistan
 UNAMA Mid Year Report 2014, Protection of Civilians, pp. 66-67.