The Sunday Leader

Funding Issues Hamper Demining

By Waruni Karunarathne

According to specialists and researchers working on de-mining operations in the North and East regions, there are still unidentified areas that are not being mapped in their mission – yet in the recent times, the process of clearing landmines have slowed down to a great extent leaving the operation incomplete. Although the resettlement is done to a large extent after clearing certain areas, civilians in these areas continue to live in danger until all the landmines in the surrounding areas are identified and cleared.

Vidya Abeygunawardena  a researcher working on landmines and cluster bombs said that the Military Humanitarian Demining Unit from the side of the government and international mine action organisations and mine advisory groups like the HALO Trust, MAG, the Danish Demining Group (DDG) and Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony (DASH) have been involved in demining operations in the North and East. Most of the international organisations have cutback their capacity, funds and employees working on the national mine action operation. Thereby the operation which was expected to be completed in 2020 has now come to stand still.

Abeygunawardena explained that Sri Lanka received grants and support especially at the end of the war during the emergency phase from the international organisations to clear landmines as it was critical to resettle people who were displaced at that stage.

However he added that according to those organisations, at present Sri Lanka no longer requires emergency clearance and they have also observed the economic growth of the country and therefore the cash grants to international organisations engaged in the mine action operation have been immensely cutback and a great number of employees working on the mine action operation has been retrenched.

“After most number of people were removed from welfare centres and resettled, the demining operation has slowed down to a great extent which does not look very good. We cleared an area close to 53 square kilometres in 2011, 22 square kilometres in 2012 and then the area we cleared reduced to 8 square kilometres in 2013 and 5 square kilometres in 2014. Now we have identified another area close to 75 square kilometres in the North and East where we need to carry out the mine evacuation operation. Plus, there are still areas that we have not yet identified,” Abeygunewardena pointed out.

He added that people have been resettled in certain areas after clearing the areas of landmines, yet the danger is when people wander in the forest areas which are not yet been mapped under the mine evacuation operation. He elaborated that it is unavoidable that people enter forest areas to meet certain needs related to daily chores and livelihood activities and children enter forest areas to play and there are still some incidents where people continue to be killed or maimed due to activations of mines. Therefore he insisted that until all the areas are cleared of anti-personnel mines people in these areas continue to live in danger. He reiterated that the government should give priority to complete the landmine evacuation operation.

Further, he added that mainly countries like United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, Norway and India helped in doing many tasks related to evacuating landmines successfully and clearing landmines in the Mannar rice-bowl is one of the grand success story of the whole operation as it has now allowed people to cultivate in this area increasing paddy supply to Sri Lankan market. According to the government figures, in general 63,420 Metric Tons of paddy production is recorded in the Rice Bowl during Maha season. However, Abeygunawardena said that there are still agricultural areas that are not been cleared of mines especially in the East and it is absolutely necessary to map those areas.

“We have to do a proper survey and map the areas. The government should take the responsibility to complete this operation. They have to consider this as a priority. There have been lots of successful operations. But there are still landmines in many areas putting lives in danger. The government needs to put funds to complete these tasks and build a dialogue with international organisations about the importance of completely clearing these areas of landmines,” he added. According to him, the government should get international support and funds to see the end of this task. He further added that, when this operation was under the ministry of Economic Development they were preparing a report on the demining operation which however came to standstill. Even though the year 2020 was named as the year to complete the operation, Abegunewardena noted observing the slow pace of the operation it will take longer than that.

Meanwhile, Bradman Weerakoon, an adviser to the Minister of Resettlement added that the mine action operation is still ongoing.

He assured that all the areas where people have been resettled were cleared before the resettlement. “At present also we call upon military demining unit or HALO Trust or other mine action organisations when there is a need. Earlier the operation was done in a fairly rapid pace as there was an urgency to resettle displaced people after the war. At present most of the displaced people have been resettled and no such urgency therefore the operation has slowed down,” Bradman noted. According to him, recently also they had received several acres of land in Jaffna which was released by the military for resettlement and the ministry has helped carrying out necessary landmine clearing operations in those lands.

He added that there is still danger in some areas but since the areas where people have been resettled are cleared prior to resettlement, there is no threat to their lives. According to him now even the international mine action organisations cutback their funds probably because they think there is no need of giving priority to carry out landmine evacuation operation at present.  Bradman noted that Sri Lanka is not a party to the Mine Ban Treaty which is an international agreement to ban anti-personnel mines that prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines – yet he added that Sri Lanka has been now acting in accordance with those regulations of the international treaty. According to him, Sri Lanka did not sign the international treaty on banning landmines at that point probably because LTTE was in operation and they continued to use mines, the government could not expect the LTTE to act in accordance with the treaty.

When inquired about the current progress of the mine action operation, Minister of Resettlement D. M Swaminathan told The Sunday Leader that he needed a little bit of time to check the factual position of the matter before commenting.

The Ministry of Defence website reported that the National Mine Action Prorgramme of Sri Lanka was initiated in 2002 with the assistance of UNDP, UNICEF, INGOs, NGOs and several donor countries (Australia, USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, Norway, India, China, EU) with the goal of creating a mine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) free environment in support of the resettlement and development programmes of the government of Sri Lanka.  According to the website, the initiation of humanitarian de-mining since 2002 has achieved many milestones during the process such as developing National Mine Action Standards in 2004 and 2010, setting up of Sri Lanka Mine Action Strategy in 2006 and 2010.

The task of clearing landmines was previously under the ministry of economic development which is now assigned to the Ministry of Resettlement under the new government.  The Cabinet paper on this issue was approved on 18th March 2015 at the Cabinet Meeting headed by President Maithripala Sirisena. Landmine researchers insisted that the new government should be able to address all of the five pillars of mine action that include de-mining, mine risk education, victim assistance, stockpile destruction, and advocacy related to the issue. They demanded the government to give this matter a high priority in order to complete this operation by the already set deadline in 2020 to become zero mine-affected country.

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