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05/27/2013

New reports of landmine use in Yemen

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is meeting in Geneva and Yemen is the country most delegates are talking about.

Three independent reports, including one by Human Rights Watch, have surfaced and claim thousands of landmines have been laid in Yemen in recent months.

“This appears to be the most serious violation of the mine ban treaty in its 14 years of existence, and the first time a member’s armed forces have used antipersonnel mines,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “The integrity of the treaty is at stake. Yemen needs to investigate and hold those responsible accountable.”

In a cash-strapped country that struggles to offer adequate healthcare, at least 110 children and 42 adults were injured or killed by landmines in Yemen between January and July of 2012, according to ICBL.

That led ICBL on Monday to demand answers from Yemen, whose leaders at the Switzerland meeting pledged to offer more answers on who has laid the landmines when ICBL holds its annual meeting in December.

Paul Hannon, with Mining Watch Canada, is attending the meeting and concedes that even though Yemen in 1997 signed the Ottawa Treaty, promising not to use landmines and destroy its stockpile, there’s not a lot the international community can do about it.

“It's basically a public disgrace in diplomatic terms,” Hannon said in a phone interview from Geneva. “There are no specific sanctions.”

Hannon said reports of landmine use in Yemen first surfaced last year, but lacked independent confirmation.

The big question, Hannon said, is finding out where the landmines in Yemen came from.

The country has said it has maintained a stockpile of 3,000 landmines for training purposes. But Hannon said there are reports that as many as 8,000 have actually been laid.

“There are three possibilities,” Hannon said. “Either they did not report accurately the number of mines they had, or they found more stocks and did not report on it, or they have acquired more landmines, and who knows where they came from. There are a certain number of reasonable suspects.”

Yemen has a new government, and it has disbanded the revolutionary guard so it’s possible that the mines have been laid without government involvement, Hannon said.

And even if the government does want to move to stop those who lay landmines, it’s unclear how successful it might be. As The Economist points out in a recent story on the country, Yemen has “scores of gun markets” selling Kalashnikovs, Turkish glocks, tank artillery and even “Libyans”, black rifles supposedly supplied by the Gadhafi regime.

Yemen, The Economist notes, “has done little to check the proliferation of arms. Yemen is reckoned to have more guns per head than any country in the world apart from America.”

Yemen remains a world away for most Canadians, so why should a reader here be moved by the landmine news?

The report may also resonate with some Canadian readers because in 1997, the Canadian government helped spearhead what became known as the Ottawa Treaty, an agreement signed by 125 countries to end the production of landmines, clear the ones that had already been laid and destroy all stockpiles.

The treaty was a watershed. While countries had long recognized the damage caused by landmines — Canada started destroying its stock of 30,000 in 1996 — the number of landmine casualties continued to climb. In Belgium, they were still digging up 80 mines a day — mines that had been laid during World War I.

But 15 years later, Canada appears to be abandoning the cause. Landmine experts and current and former diplomats say Stephen Harper’s Conservative government apparently is telling demining groups that landmine removal is too closely associated with past Liberal governments.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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