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Changing the 'mine' set
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 01 - 2006

Landmines are an explosive problem, especially when Egypt wants to develop an area filled with them. Hala Sakr reports on a landmark conference
Egypt's efforts to tackle its serious landmine problem were the focus of a two-day conference last week. The International Conference for Development and Landmine Clearance in the North West Coast brought together the ministers of foreign affairs, international cooperation, planning, water resources, health, electricity and environment, along with a representative of the People's Assembly, several national and international experts, and representatives of non-governmental organisations whose work involves landmines.
The conference was organised by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), whose head, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former United Nations (UN) secretary-general, highlighted the link between human rights and landmines. Not only do mines pose a continuous threat to human life, Boutros-Ghali said, they also hinder development efforts and programmes.
Salah Amer, who heads the NCHR's International Relations Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the conference was a "positive initiative in line with the NCHR's mandate -- respect for the human right to life, to personal physical safety and security, the right to development, and the right to live in a safe environment."
The matter becomes more tangible in light of a comprehensive LE60-100 billion, 20-year strategy for the development of Egypt's north west coast. Clearing the area of the 17.6 million landmines planted there will cost some $250 million. A trust fund has been established in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to receive national and international funding towards that goal. However, according to Ayman Sorour of Protection, a non-governmental organisation that works with landmines and their victims, "without a clear strategy, Egypt can never get international aid" towards this goal.
While International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul-Naga -- who heads the National Committee for Development and De-mining -- insisted that clearing the deadly mines should be the "responsibility of the parties that laid them in World War II", the dispute over who should get rid of the mines has been ongoing for about eight years now. The crux of the issue is that Egypt is among the countries that have yet to become party to the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Convention, which prohibits the use and production of anti-personnel mines. Although 154 countries are already members of the convention, Egypt (and Israel) are among the just-under-a-fourth of the UN members who still remain outside it. Meanwhile, since the convention came into force, about $2.5 million has been committed to humanitarian de-mining, mine risk education, stockpile destruction and victim assistance. In almost all cases, however, assistance is made available only to signatory parties.
Egypt's concerns regarding the convention mainly rest on the key issue that it assigns the responsibility for de-mining to the countries where the mines exist regardless of who laid them. Other concerns are related to security issues.
Satnam Singh, the diplomatic advisor of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and a former Indian ambassador to Egypt, suggested that Egypt has to reconsider these qualms. "Egypt has not used any landmines for the last three decades. It has put a stop to its production. Egypt no longer imports or exports any mines." Singh told the Weekly that, "when the Ottawa Convention was being drafted, Egypt made its point, but... it has been eight years now. There is no possibility for renegotiating or redrafting or readdressing the issue differently. There is no going back."
The Ottawa Convention only deals with anti- personnel mines, and as such Singh said that only accounts for "15-20 per cent of the whole situation [in Egypt]. Anti-tank mines and explosive remnants of war comprise the main problem. So even if Egypt is able to shift the responsibility to the countries that have laid the mines, only a fifth of its problem will be solved. The main problem would still remain."
Singh also disagrees with Egypt's concerns about mines securing its borders. "Landmines do not add to security, but to the misery of humanity. They can only delay, but have never stopped a determined enemy. Moreover, armed forces get used to defending themselves without landmines. Other means need to be found."
Protection's Sorour agreed with Singh. "Egypt will benefit in every respect if it signs while there is still an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world. Otherwise, I fear that as time passes on, we will no longer be heard."
Although there used to be a massive amount of landmines in Sinai, Egyptian military forces managed to clear the peninsula of about 95 per cent of them, said the International Cooperation Ministry's Marwan Badr. The problem therefore basically remains in the north west coast. Yet no maps are available to show the positions of landmines in this area. Worse still, over the years they have been misplaced by moving sand, and pushed deeper into the ground.
Sixty years on, landmines have been blocking development efforts in 22 per cent of Egypt's total area within the north west coast and the governorate of Marsa Matrouh. They stand in the way of making use of three million feddans of cultivable land, 300 million cubic metres of underground water, and the enormous oil reservoirs available in these areas. Moreover, thousands of lives have been shattered by death, injury and disability.
Soliman Gebril provides one vivid example of this human tragedy. One windy day, as Gebril was following his camels through the Matrouh desert, he stumbled over a landmine. "They had to amputate my leg. I was not a government employee and had no health insurance. I had to pay for a prosthetic leg out of my own minimal resources," he recalled. Later Gebril was given a government job (Egyptian law mandates that the handicapped/ disabled are entitled to five per cent of posts in any institution containing no less than 100 jobs), and hence has access to health insurance facilities. "Yet, we still have to go back and forth to the health insurance facility, so most of the time we simply rely on ourselves, or our families, to avoid the hassle," he said.
Sherif Qassem, another victim, joins Gebril in his complaint. "I was hit when I was on a hunting trip 18 years ago. There were no warning signs. And yet we have no social or economic support whatsoever."
Investment and development are no doubt important, but Ibrahim El-Zawarem of Peace Gardens, a non governmental organisation working for landmine victim support, called for equally prioritising victim rights and support within the new Egyptian strategy. "Every year, WWII victims are commemorated in Al-Alamein, when only a few yards away there are Egyptian victims whose suffering is only an extension of what happened back in the 1940s. Yet they have always been overlooked and neglected. They have absolutely nothing," he told the Weekly. He proposes a special fund to support these victims. "Charging something like 50 piastres for every metre invested is nothing, and yet it would help a lot."
The International Cooperation Ministry's Badr brushes away any doubts about the weight of support to be provided to victims. "The strategy has addressed the issue of landmines comprehensively. Although the focus is overall development, the humanitarian aspect has not been neglected." One example he mentioned was the special medical and rehabilitation centres for victims that will be established by the plan.
Along the same line, Sdrjan Jovanovic, the International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC) Mine Action regional advisor for the Middle East, told the Weekly that the ICRC was open to constructive dialogue with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian Red Crescent about the role they could play in contributing to the resolution of Egypt's mine problem. The ICRC already has victim support programmes in a number of Arab countries like Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
The conference ended with participants calling on Egypt to reconsider its position towards the international conventions concerning landmines, and particularly Ottawa. They equally urged the international community to offer Egypt the funding and technical and technological support it needed in its landmine clearance efforts without linking this assistance to signing Ottawa. The conference also requested that the NCHR establish a committee to oversee the implementation of these recommendations.
"The conference was a platform to urge the international community to take action regarding the deadly remnants of WWII that cause much suffering to the Egyptian people," said the NCHR's Amer. But while this cannot happen "until plausible steps are taken to assist Egypt in its efforts", Amer insisted that this assistance not be linked "to signing Ottawa or similar conventions. For here, the stake is human life."

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