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Anti-vehicle mines risk sliding off UN agenda despite increasing humanitarian impact: The case of Mali

Anti-vehicle mines risk sliding off UN agenda despite increasing humanitarian impact: The case of Mali
Remains of trucks destroyed by IED during previous logistic convoy in Northern Mali is a commun sight, the 16th of February 2017. Photo: Flickr/MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti.
Yeonju Jung and Ursign Hofmann

 

Anti-vehicle mines (AVMs), unlike anti-personnel mines (APMs), are designed to be detonated by the presence, contact or proximity of a vehicle rather than a person stepping on them. While APMs are banned under the Mine Ban Treaty signed in 1997, the use of AVMs is not outlawed and is only regulated through a handful of technical restrictions. While many states still consider AVMs legitimate and appreciate them for their military value, they remain an inherently indiscriminate weapon and civilians are the ones who suffer the most from this weapon.

Since 2001, state discussions on AVMs under the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) have stalled and the topic risks being completely dropped. The informal consultations that were held throughout this year have concluded that divergence of views on how to address AVMs in the CCW framework persists. Ahead of the UN CCW meeting in Geneva next week, this article aims to illustrate the impact of AVMs and the importance of continued state consideration with a case study on Mali where an increase in AVM impact has been observed.

 

Humanitarian impact of AVMs: Mainly civilians and in conflict settings

Since 2014, SIPRI and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) have documented the humanitarian and development impact of AVMs in numerous areas around the globe. From 2015 to 2017, SIPRI and GICHD recorded 528 incidents related—or suspected to be related—to AVMs, causing more than 1,500 casualties (people killed or injured).[1] A majority of them were civilians (56%) followed by national security forces (33%).

The research shows that AVMs are spread over 33 states and territories. A handful of states—Ukraine, Pakistan, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan—accounted for the highest numbers of casualties over the past three years, amounting to almost three-quarters of the total global AVM casualties. In previous years, AVM-related incidents occurred predominantly in conflict settings such as Ukraine—which has been particularly affected. Mali, although less in the spotlight globally, has also had a significant number of AVM incidents.  

Figure 1. Casualty trends in states with highest numbers of AVM casualties, 2015-2017
Figure 1. Casualty trends in states with highest numbers of AVM casualties, 2015-2017.​​​​​​

 

Mali: Complex tensions and a growing threat from AVMs

In a military coup in early 2012, the elected Malian government was ousted as a result of its failure to curb the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions in the northern regions of the country. Bolstered by the influx of fighters and weaponry from Libya following the fall of Qaddafi, the rebel groups took control of the northern regions of the country. Fighting soon broke out between them and previously allied Islamist groups, with the latter taking control of the north. Much of northern Mali was retaken by a French-led military intervention in early 2013, paving the way to the establishment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) as well as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to stabilise the country, help the state reassert its authority, support the transitional process and protect the Malian people.

Despite the 2015 Peace Agreement and international interventions, the security situation in Mali has deteriorated and is even spilling over into western Niger and northern Burkina Faso. Clashes between armed self-defence groups including state-supported militias and attacks by extremist groups have led to a deteriorating security environment in which explosive devices represent one of many serious security threats. These include remotely-detonated or vehicle-borne devices, suicide attacks, or victim-activated landmines such as AVMs.

According to the most recent SIPRI-GICHD study, from 2015 to 2017 Mali had the third highest number of casualties from AVMs in the world (see Figure 1). Data indicates that AVM casualties in Mali have been on the rise since 2016, with a spike in the first nine months of 2018.

 

Figure 2. AVM incidents and casualties in Mali, January 2015-September 2018
Figure 2. AVM incidents and casualties in Mali, January 2015-September 2018. ​​​

 

When the AVM threat spreads: Central Mali as new hotspot

In the first phase of the crisis in Mali, violence was rather confined to the north of the country in the regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. The risks and needs of the centre were largely absent from the 2015 peace negotiations and international partners and neighbouring countries have, for a long time, focused their attention in the north. In recent years, violent groups have expanded into central Mali.[2] Today, security concerns in the centre are considered severe and urgent. MINUSMA, Malian security forces and international forces—including the G5 Sahel Joint Force and Operation Barkhaneare facing an overall deteriorating security situation, especially in the central regions, and are targeted by violent groups or coalitions such as the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jamāʿat nuṣrat al-islām wal-muslimīn, or JNIM). Similarly, between June and September this year, the highest quarterly number of civilian casualties was recorded in the centre since the deployment of MINUSMA in 2013.

SIPRI-GICHD research exemplifies such trends in the central regions of Mali. While AVM incidents were exclusively recorded in the Kidal and Gao regions in 2015, they appear to have progressively spread geographically: preliminary data since January this year indicates that nearly half of AVM incidents occurred in the Mopti and Ségou regions in the centre of the country.

Figure 3. Map of AVM incidents in Mali, January 2015-September 2018.
Figure 3. Map of AVM incidents in Mali, January 2015-September 2018.​​​​​​

 

High casualties among civilians and peacekeepers in Mali

As in other states, civilians account for the highest casualties from AVMs in Mali. Since 2016, the number of civilian casualties has rapidly increased. This is not necessarily surprising in view of the threat of explosive devices expanding towards more populated areas of central Mali—in the Mopti region earlier this year, for instance, two AVM incidents alone caused more than 50 civilian casualties. Nor is it surprising in light of violent groups appearing to have improved their operational capacity. Compared with four years ago, AVM incidents today cause more casualties on average and, by taking a ratio of killed to total casualties, are also far more lethal.

Furthermore, almost one in four AVM casualties in Mali since 2015 have been peacekeepers. This is a notably higher ratio than the global average of approximately one in twenty (2015–2017). Peacekeepers in Mali also accounted for more than four out of five peacekeeper casualties from AVMs globally between 2015 and 2017. This finding is in line with the understanding that MINUSMA is considered to be the deadliest UN mission since its establishment.

                                                                                                 

Figure 4. Categories of casualties in Mali, January 2015–September 2018.
Figure 4. Categories of casualties in Mali, January 2015–September 2018.​​​​​

 

However, it is worth noting that peacekeeper casualties from AVMs have steadily declined—from initially 27 in 2015 to 17 in 2017—and SIPRI-GICHD preliminary nine-month data for 2018 suggests that this downward trend has continued thus far. This is echoed by MINUSMA data for all types of violent attacks combined—a 30% decrease in fatalities and a 40% drop in injuries from January to June this year, compared with the second half of 2017, despite a consistent number of hostile acts. This notwithstanding, it still remains to be seen how casualty numbers evolve after the rainy season (usually ending in October-November), which has been marked by an increase in the level of attacks in past years.

 

AVM discussions at a crossroads: More evidence needed?

As in previous SIPRI–GICHD research, this case study of Mali sketches the magnitude of the humanitarian impact of AVMs. High numbers of civilians and peacekeepers have been recorded among casualties, alongside a marked geographical shift of and increase in the overall threat from AVMs.

AVM casualties are a tangible and relatively documented face of AVM impact, yet they present an incomplete picture of the consequences of AVMs. Much less attention has been paid to the wider humanitarian impacts of AVM contamination, for example impairing the access of civilians to vital resources or humanitarian assistance. In the same vein, much less is known about the socio-economic consequences of AVMs that can be equally crippling in post-conflict areas than in (protracted) conflict settings like Mali. A new report on another country suffering prolonged conflict—Afghanistan—sets the tone: although the humanitarian impact of AVM contamination may be lower in that country than in others given progress made with removing AVMs, there is a very concrete, yet insufficiently researched impact on civilian lives, livelihoods, market access and large-scale, macro-economic development projects.

Evidence in this article is in sharp contrast to the looming risk of discussions among states on mitigating AVM impact on civilians slipping off the political agenda. While bolstering documentation of the humanitarian impact further, fact-based research is needed to fill evidence gaps on the socio-economic consequences of AVM contamination. A more comprehensive understanding of the issue at stake can be a catalyst for international discussions on the topic.

 

The authors are thankful to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and its Mine Action Service and The HALO Trust for valuable data and to SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme for precious insights. Responsibility for any errors and conclusions lies entirely with the authors.

 

[1] For more details on the SIPRI-GICHD data collection methodology, see www.gichd.org/avm.

[2] There is no established definition of 'central Mali' among the different stakeholders involved in the country. For this article, we considered the regions of Ségou and Mopti as being 'central Mali', in line with the Malian Government’s Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Yeonju Jung is a Research Assistant with the SIPRI Peace and Development Programme.
Ursign Hofmann is Policy Advisor at the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD).