Mine Action: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Mine action encompasses a range of activities

The definition of mine action has evolved over time in tandem with the discipline itself. The term mine action was officially endorsed by the United Nations (UN) in the 1998 UN mine action policy document, Mine Action and Effective Coordination: The United Nations Inter-Agency Policy. Some sources trace the origins of the term to the early 1990s, when Canadian Army engineers recommended that a body be set up to administer and coordinate mine-related activities in Cambodia.1

Generally agreed upon definition of mine action

The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) defines the term mine action as activities which aim to reduce the social, economic and environmental impact of landmines and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW).2 This definition encompasses not only humanitarian demining activities but also how the contamination of landmines and ERW affect the lives of people and societies. The key objective of mine action is to reduce the level of risk from landmines and ERW to a level at which people can live safely; economic, social, and health development can occur free from the constraints imposed by landmine contamination; and victims needs can be addressed. Mine action also aims to create local capacity in mine-affected communities, which is linked to the long-term aspect of rehabilitation and development.

Variations in use of terms: Mine action versus demining

According to the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), which guide the planning, implementation, and operational aspects of mine action for agencies and organizations, mine and ERW clearance is considered to be just one aspect of the demining process. In addition, demining is considered to be one component of mine action.3

Demining denotes the clearance of land to internationally agreed standards. The objective is to clear given areas of land of all explosive devices, including mines, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and any other ERW.4

Humanitarian demining involves technical surveying, mapping, clearance, marking, post-clearance documentation, community mine action liaisoning, and the handover of cleared land.5

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in mine action, such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), use the term mine action to describe activities generally categorized as demining under IMAS. For example, ICBLs annual report on landmines, the Landmine Monitor Report, uses the term mine action to denote demining activities. In addition, MAG describes its work as relating to the clearance of the remnants of conflict.6 Moreover, the terms demining, mine clearance, and humanitarian demining are used interchangeably, as are the terms mine action and humanitarian mine action.

A distinction is often drawn among activities such as operational mine action (e.g., mine action in support of operations mandated by the UN Security Council), humanitarian mine action, and mine action in support of reconstruction and development. In some instances, the differences are derived from preconceived notions of activities for a particular domain. While operational assistance to mine and UXO victims clearly falls under mine action as defined by UNMAS, most mine action professionals tend to adopt a more narrow definition of their mandate. The UN does not adhere to the distinction because it recognizes that there is considerable overlap among the various aspects of a countrys recovery (e.g., peacekeeping and peacebuilding, reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), revival of communities, reconstruction, and development).7

A broader definition of mine action with a development focus

The 1997 Bad Honnef Framework uses a slightly broader definition of mine action than IMAS. It reflects both the humanitarian and development approaches and includes concepts such as cultural rehabilitation and the participation of mine-affected communities to ensure a more broad-based and inclusive approach.

A lack of definition in the international legal frameworks

Neither the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (henceforth the Mine Ban Convention) nor international humanitarian law provides an official definition of the term mine action. Therefore, mine action and its range of activities have been defined largely by the mine action community.8

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Definition and description of landmines

According to the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), landmines are munitions designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle.9

Mines can be designed as either anti-personnel (AP) or anti-tank (AT). AP mines are designed to be activated by people, while AT mines are intended to be activated by tanks and other armored vehicles.10

Anti-personnel mines11

The Mine Ban Convention defines an AP mine in Article 2.1 as a mine designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons. There are hundreds of types of AP mine, though probably only approximately 50 or so are found in any significant numbers in mine-affected countries around the world. All AP mines can be broken into two groups:

AP blast mines12

These mines tend to be small, flat, and cylindrical and are typically 60-140 mm in diameter. They rely on the explosive blast to damage the victim and are designed to detonate when the victim steps on them. They are often buried in order to camouflage their presence. AP blast mines are deliberately designed to be small so as to be cheaper and easier to store, carry, and deploy. Furthermore, their small size means that the wounds are generally not immediately fatal. In combat, this means that more soldiers are needed to evacuate and care for the casualties, whereas a bigger mine that causes an immediately fatal wound only removes one soldier.

AP fragmentation mines13

These mines use the detonation of their explosive content to drive metal fragments into their victim. They are usually activated by a victim walking into a trip wire, and thus can often kill or injure several victims at once. The simplest design of AP fragmentation mine is basically a hand grenade mounted on a stake driven into the ground, with a trip wire attached to a pin. When the trip wire is pulled, the pin is withdrawn and the mine is activated.

There are two main variations on these basic designs:

(1) Bounding fragmentation mines. Unlike simple stake mines, bounding fragmentation mines are buried, which makes them harder to detect. When activated, the first explosive charge propels the mine casing into the air to a height of approximately 1 m, where it detonates. These mines are some of the most devastating because they are camouflaged like AP blast mines but can also strike anybody who is in the danger area.

(2) Directional fragmentation mines. These devices are crafted so that the main explosive force is directed outwards. The American version of these mines, the M18 Claymore, was originally designed to be placed in front of defensive positions and to be command detonated in the face of human wave-type frontal assaults. The Claymore was soon fitted with the means to add a trip wire (which made it a mine by modern definitions) and has been widely copied around the world. Such mines tend to have a lethal arc of about 45 degrees.

Anti-tank mines14

The main difference between an AP and an AT mine is that an AT mine is much larger and filled with more explosives, which enables it to defeat a tank. Usually (but not always), AT mines are also designed to have a minimum operating pressure so that, unlike AP mines, people do not set them off. The usual aim of AT mines is to achieve a mobility kill by blowing the track off a tank, immobilizing it, and thus making it an easier target, though there are some AT mines that are also designed to detonate under the belly of a tank.

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Definition and description of unexploded ordnances

An item of unexploded ordnance (UXO) is, in essence, a piece of explosive ordnance or ammunition that has failed to function as intended. UXO may include all types of explosive ordnance, including naval ordnance, land-service ammunition, and air-dropped weapons. Typically, only the latter two are relevant to humanitarian programs.15

Battlefields may be strewn with any number of items of UXO, which vary greatly in size, from hand grenades the size of an apple to large aircraft bombs weighing more than 1,000 kg. Although they have failed to function as intended, UXO sometimes require only the slightest disturbance to detonate. Their age and appearance can be deceptive. Lethal items from the First World War are still found in France and Belgium and, although rusty on the outside, they are often found to be in perfect working order.

The problem caused by UXO may be exacerbated by their unpredictability. Two apparently identical items of ordnance might behave very differently when handled, depending on what has happened to them before they are discovered.

Cluster-bombs, submunitions, and bomblets16

These items of UXO have received a great deal of media attention in the last few years. In the Second World War, German weapon designers realized that the effect of a typical aircraft load of bombs could be dramatically increased if the bombs were designed to carry a number of small sub-munitions that could spread evenly over a larger footprint than that created by a single large bomb of the same total weight. This idea was put to the test in a series of air raids on England, and the concept has been widely copied by a number of nations in the years since. The large carrying canister is generally now called a cluster-bomb unit, while submunitions are the items this unit dispenses. Submunitions come in two main types: bomblets (small bombs that are designed to explode on impact or after a short delay) and scatterable mines (devices that are intended to be activated by the victim). Many bomblets fail to function as intended and thus become UXO.

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A brief history of the use of landmines in conflict

The history of mine warfare can be traced as far back as Roman times, when caltrops, or non-explosive weapons made from sharp nails or spines, were used as a passive defense to prevent enemy cavalry or human troops from advancing or to force them into certain paths.17 In the Middle Ages, mines were dug holes near an exposed corner of a fortification that were filled with beams covered with straw and brushwood. The beams were set on fire, which would cause the fortification wall to crumble into the hole, creating a breach. In later periods, fire was replaced with gunpowder and explosives.18

According to landmine scholar Stuart Maslen, the fladdermine (or flying mine), which dates back to the 18th century, was one of the first known types of explosive mine.19 Fladdermines were often loaded with black powder mortar shells and activated with a flintlock that was connected to a trip wire. These devices were generally used in the defense of major fortifications; however, they had to be carefully maintained in order to avoid dampness. Some sources pinpoint an earlier date for the use of mines, namely the 13th century, when the Chinese under the Song Dynasty used self-tripped explosive mines filled with gunpowder against the Mongols.20

The first mechanically fused explosive landmine is often said to have been an invention of the American Civil War.21 It was during this period that improvised landmines and booby traps were buried in shallow wells in the ground and covered with shrapnel (either scrap metal or gravel). During the First World War, anti-tank (AT) and anti-personnel (AP) mines, as known today, were introduced as a means of creating obstacles for armored vehicles and defending troops. According the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, more than 300 million AT mines were used during the Second World War, of which 200 million belonged to the Soviet Union.22 Mine warfare reached a peak during the North African campaigns (e.g., Egypt and Libya) in the Second World War, as deserts provided few obstacles to maneuvering armies.23

AP mines were used during the Cold War in the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, with the superpowers either directly participating in the conflicts or indirectly providing military assistance (including mines) to all sides. In Vietnam, United States forces introduced remotely delivered or scatterable mines to prevent the flow of troops and supplies to North and South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.24 With the increasing prevalence of intrastate conflict in the early 1990s, landmines were often used defensively as part of a military strategy to prevent access to rebel encampments, as well as offensively to control movement and terrorize civilians.

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Mine action: From a military to a humanitarian and development enterprise

Until the late 1980s, mine action was solely a military enterprise. The humanitarian and development aspects of mine action only began to take full shape at the beginning of the 1990s. This coincided with the realization of the indiscriminate use of AP mines and the unnecessary injuries sustained by non-combatants both during and after armed conflict, as well as of the need to help societies recover from armed violence and during the transition to development.25 In the early 1990s, civilian actors and non-military organizations began to take on various aspects of mine action activities.

The framing of the landmines problem as a humanitarian issue coincided with the changed nature of contemporary conflict in the last decade (from interstate wars to intrastate wars) and the emergence of the concept of human security.26
Go to Small Arms and Light Weapons and Security and Public Order: Introduction

Notwithstanding the various definitions of and debates on human security,27 the concept itself involves a normative shift in the understanding of the concept of security from its traditional focus on the security of states to a focus on the physical security and well-being of individuals and groups. The landmines problem fits into the understanding of human security as a humanitarian approach, and thus we see international efforts to strengthen international law (especially to abolish weapons that have been considered harmful to civilians and non-combatants).28 As practitioner Kristian Berg Harpviken notes, For many the essence of the landmines campaign has been its redefinition of what was traditionally seen as a security and disarmament issue: it is now primarily seen as a humanitarian issue, giving rise to the new so-called human security paradigm.29

Concurrently, recognition of the human toll exacted by landmines increased as a result of a number of critical studies. In 1994, the United States State Department issued a report entitled Hidden Killers: The Global Problem with Uncleared Landmines, which essentially deemed the problem of landmines an insurmountable challenge. The report noted that while approximately 80,000 landmines were being removed on an annual basis, some 2.5 million were being planted.30 The most important document to demonstrate the limited military utility of landmines in comparison to the devastating humanitarian consequences of their use was the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 1996 report, Anti-personnel Landmines: Friend or Foe?31

Richard Price, a landmines expert, remarks, The statistics generated by the campaign, combined with personal testimony and graphic images of landmine victims, brought to the foreground an issue that became not only highly publicized but also had a galvanizing effect on recruiting converts to the cause among many of those exposed to the tragedies.32 Therefore, through the framing of the problem of landmines as a humanitarian disaster and through public advocacy, and lobbying of governments about the indiscriminate nature of these weapons, so-called moral entrepreneurs were able to coopt a broad-based coalition.
Select Statistics from the Campaign to Ban Landmines
  • Cost to remove every planted landmine in the world: $33 billion
  • Stockpiled landmines worldwide: 250 million
  • Landmines in ground worldwide: 2.5 million
  • New landmines laid each year: 1 million
  • People killed or maimed by mines since 1975: 100,000
  • Cost to remove a landmine: $300
  • Cost to purchase a cheap landmine: $3
Source: International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Fact Sheets: http://www.icbl.org/lm/factsheets

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) often state that mines injure or kill 2,000 people a month, or 24,000 a year.33 The extrapolations from this statistic are derived from a weak database. There has not been an agency or organization working on mine victims that has been able to develop a better and more comprehensive estimate. From what we know, however, the vast majority of victims and mortalities are non-combatants, who are normally from marginalized sectors of society. Therefore, economically, they are also the most vulnerable groups.

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Mine free versus mine safe

It is important to point out that the absolute clearance of mines is rarely possible. International landmine and explosive ordnance expert Colin King notes, No matter how thorough the de-mining, there will always be the possibility that some may have been missed for one reason or another. In recognition of this fact, the terms mine safe or impact free have been adopted in preference to mine free.34

1. Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), A Guide to Mine Action and Explosive Remnants of War, 3rd edition (Geneva: GICHD, April 2007), 50.
2. United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), IMAS 01.10: Guide for the Application of International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), 2nd edition (New York: UNMAS, January 2003) (amended).
3. Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), "Mine Action and Effective Coordination: The UN Policy: UN General Assembly Doc. A/53/496," in A Guide to Mine Action, 2nd edition (Geneva: GICHD, January 2004), 201.
4. Colin King, "The Demining Toolkit," in Mine Action: Lessons and Challenges (Geneva: International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, November 2005), 18.
5. UNMAS, IMAS 01.10, 8.
6. Mine Advisory Group International (MAG), Jargon Buster, http://www.maginternational.org/about/jargon-buster/.
7. GICHD, Mine Action and Effective Coordination, 201.
8. Eric Filippino, "The Role of Mine Action in Victim Assistance," Journal of Mine Action 6, no. 3 (2002).
9. UNMAS, IMAS 01.10.
10. Robert Keeley, "Understanding Landmines and Mine Action," Mines Action Canada, September 2003.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Mike Croll, The History of Landmines (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1998), 1-8; A. Epstein, "Mine Warfare," in Hidden Killers: The Global Problem with Uncleared Landmines (Washington: Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, July 1993), 11.
18. Stuart Maslen, Commentaries on Arms Control Treaties: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
19. Ibid., 2.
20. Jiao Yus 14th century military treaties, known as the Huolongjing Quanzhi (Fire Drake Manual in One Complete Volume) documents this. See, Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 5(Taipei: Caves Books, 1986).
21. Needham, Science and Civilization in China; Maslen, Commentaries on Arms Control, 3.
22. United States Defense Intelligence Agency and United States Army Foreign Science and Technology Center, Landmine Warfare: Trends and Projections, DST-1160S-019-92 (December 1992).
23. Keeley, Understanding Landmines; International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Anti-Personnel Landmines: Friend or Foe? A Study of the Military Use and Effectiveness of Anti-Personnel Mines (Geneva: ICRC, August 1997), 26-39.
24. Keeley, Understanding Landmines; ICRC, Anti-Personnel Landmines: Friend or Foe?, 26-39; Maslen, Commentaries on Arms Control, 4-5.
25. However, the first humanitarian response to the landmine problem in the field was in Afghanistan in 1989.
26. The term human security first came to prominence with the publication of the 1994 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report. The UNDP definition focuses on a broad range of threats (economic, food, health, environment, community, and political) to individuals. The discourse on human security pre-dates the end of the Cold War. For instance, Emma Rothschilds article traces the historical connotation of individual security as far back as the European Enlightenment. See, Emma Rothschild, "What Is Security?" Daedalus 124, no. 3 (1995): 53-98. In addition, several independent commissions, including the Brandt Commission, the Brundtland Commission, the Commission on Global Governance, the South Commission, and the Common Security Forum all promote the need to shift the emphasis from a state-centric perspective to a focus on people.
27. For a better understanding of the debates, see the special issue on human security of Security Dialogue 38, no. 3 (2006).
28. For a better understanding of the debates, see the special issue on human security in Security Dialogue 38, No. 3 (2006); Fen Osler Hampson, Promoting the safety of Peoples: Banning Anti-Personnel Landmines, in Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, ed. Fen Osler Hampson, Jean Daudelin, John Hay, Todd Marting and Holly Reid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 5.
29. Kristian Berg Harpviken and Bernt A. Skåra, "Humanitarian Mine Action and Peace Building: Exploring the Relationship," Third World Quarterly 24, no. 5 (2003): 809-22.
30. United States Department of State, Hidden Killers: The Global Problem with Uncleared Landmines (Washington: Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, July 1993).
31. ICRC, Anti-Personnel Landmines: Friend or Foe?
32. Richard Price, "Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines," International Organization 52, no. 3 (1998): 623.
33. International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Landmine Monitor Report 1999 (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2000).
34. King, "The Demining Toolkit," 35.

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