UNAMA's weekly press conference
KABUL - Transcript of press conference in Kabul by MACCA Programme Director Dr Haider Reza and Nazifullah Salarzai, Public Outreach Officer, UNAMA Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit.
The mine action programme in Afghanistan started some 20 years ago in 1989 and the programme has done a very good job all these years. If you look at three years ago the average number of victims per month exceeded 150. Some were killed and the majority survived which added to the list of the number of disabled people in this country which itself created a burden on the family, on the individual and on the society. And today as we speak the average number of victims is somewhere around 40 a month.
Now in 2009 the programme achievements are very considerable, because the number of victims has fallen to lower than one quarter than what it was in 2001, just right after the fall of the Taliban regime.
In 2009, we worked on 282 communities, we cleared 1,229 minefields and 121 battle areas, more than 50 thousand anti-personnel mines were destroyed, and some 700 anti-tank mines and more than a million explosive remnants of war (ERW) were also destroyed.
If you look at the achievements of the programme during the 20 past years, we cleared over 15,000 hazard areas throughout the country. Eighty four districts and 1,370 communities have been declared free of mines and other explosive remnants of war. This is very, very considerable.
I would just like to say two other things. One is the Afghanistan Compact, which was signed in London in January 2006. Under this Compact, Afghanistan committed to reducing the area contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war by 70 per cent by the beginning of March 2011.
And also based on the Ottawa Convention, when Afghanistan became a member of the Convention in March 2003, Afghanistan committed that the country as whole would be cleared of all mines and explosives remnants of war by the beginning of March 2013.
Now looking at these two benchmarks, 70 per cent of the Compact and the total clearance of Afghanistan in 2013, I can already say now that Afghanistan will be forced to ask for an extension, simply because of different reasons. One is funding at the very top – if we have enough funds we can do much more. Second, there are other reasons, for example security. But nevertheless, if we look at mine action as a whole it has done a tremendous job in the country.
We have an Integrated Operational Framework for 1389 (March 2010-March 2011) based on which we are going to emphasize or concentrate our efforts in areas where there is a need from a humanitarian perspective, where we would like to reduce the number of mine and ERW victims. Forty as I mentioned is still high and puts Afghanistan on the top of the list of the countries affected by mines and ERW.
We would like to assist families and ordinary people on the ground to have an income by working on their land, on their farms, and by grazing their animals. So that will be our emphasis mainly.
Now in order to achieve our objectives – and I was personally in Colombia, in Catalina a couple of months ago – we have officially launched an appeal for the amount of US$ 242 million for mine action programmes for the year 1389, which is 2010 and part of 2011. Out of that we are US$ 163 million short. In other words we do not have a commitment or a pledge from donor countries. So to get 163 million out of 242 million is going to be a huge challenge, no doubt about it. But nevertheless we are thankful for the very generous donations all along from the donor countries – they have been very, very generous to the mine action programme in this country. The funding shortfall is kind of a chronic problem that we have had. Nevertheless we have tried to do as much as possible to see if we can get the amount and to see if we can do more.
I talked of the Compact and Ottawa Convention. In order to reach the benchmarks of the Compact and the Ottawa Convention for 2011, this year the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) has to clear something like about 293 square kilometres in one year, which I think will be beyond our reach. More realistically if funding flows to the programme, we will be able to clear 157 square kilometres for the year. But the good thing about the Afghan Mine Action Programme is that with the workforce, around 10,000 people, there is the potential in the capacity to expand the programme in a realistic and logical way, provided there is a funding.
Another very important portion of our work or mine action activities is mine risk education and victim assistance. For the coming year we are hoping to be able to receive US$ 2.8 million for Mine Risk Education. In terms of assistance for mine victims, last year a lot was done, because parliament passed the National Disability Law and there are ongoing discussions around the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
RFE/RL [translated from Pashto]: Still we are talking about more than 600 square kilometres of land in Afghanistan that is impacted by mines and explosive remains of war. So what do you want to do especially in areas where it is a challenge it terms of security and other factors? Do you have any indication that new mines are being laid in Afghanistan? How much money are you expecting all together to meet the Ottawa Convention bench mark?
MACCA: It is a fact that security has been a challenge especially in the southern half of Afghanistan.
Now as a coordination office we don’t have firm evidence to indicate that new mines have been laid, but we do have information from time to time of mine accidents that happen in certain areas. As an example, recently in Nowzad (Helmand) we sent a delegation and a team of deminers, including NGOs, as well as some people from our office to make an investigation of the situation in Nowzad. There have been some mine accidents in that area no one denies that. That could point to the fact that maybe new mines have been laid. But one thing I would like to make clear, especially to media colleagues that almost every night unfortunately we hear of a mine exploding on the side of the road. Now from a technical perspective we have to keep in mind that those are not really mines by technical definition.
These are the improvised explosive devices or IEDs that are planted on the side of the road. So as was mentioned that the UN has said that the number of civilians killed and injured due to these IEDs has jumped very high. But as a fact they are not really mines.
In order to tackle the problem of mines in sensitive and volatile areas we have a programme called community based demining which started in mid 2008. Our experience of more than one and half years of the community based demining programme is extremely encouraging.
Mine action has been carried out in some of the most volatile provinces such as Kunar, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand and Ghor. One good thing is that mine action is a half day job that normally ends at around midday. A deminer is supported through a community based demining programme where initially the youth is taken from the community with the backup of the elders in the community and once they are trained for about two to three months then they are embedded back in his community to go and clear the mined areas.
A man working half a day as a deminer earns a salary and for the rest of the day he can work on his farm or his land which helps him to have an extra income on the one hand and also helps the community to get rid of the mines and explosive remnants of war from their vicinity. So it has been a very successful story in that sense.
In terms of budget how much do we expect? Like I said in 2010-2011 we have asked for US$ 242 million and we have a shortfall of US$ 163 million. I can say it for sure that unfortunately we will not be able to get all the US$ 242 million that we have asked for but in order to reach the Ottawa Convention maybe we still need in the range of US$ 400 million for the next few years to get the job done.
TOLO TV [translated from Dari]: Especially in the areas where security is a problem, do you have evidence that new mines are laid? And of those mines, which country do they belong to? If the shortage in the budget continues will it be a big problem for the programme in the long-run?
MACCA: As I mentioned earlier, we as the coordinating body, do not have any evidence to show that these are new mines, belonging to such and such country, that have been laid. We do not have that information. What we can say is that through our mine risk education and victim assistance teams, we have information collected by them, and data from the clinics and the hospitals, which indicate that new mine-related incidents have happened. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that maybe in certain areas new mines have been laid.
In terms of the budget shortfall it’s a sad reality. As I mentioned earlier, if we have more money, we can do more, but if we have a shortfall we cannot do what we would like to achieve. Also, we should keep in mind that we are a huge programme with more than 10.000 people.
RADIO KILLID [translated from Dari]: My question is about the number of deminers that are injured or killed while working on the field.
MACCA: Unfortunately, for 2009, we had 36 deminers that where hurt because of an explosion while they were working, and two deminers who lost their lives.
NEW YORK TIMES: Can you tell us which are the major countries responsible for the shortfall in funding, and what rational do they give?
MACCA: We are very thankful to the countries that I mentioned earlier for the generous donations that the Afghan Mine Action Programme has received from them over all these years in terms of funding. I’m afraid that some of the major countries that were supporting the Mine Action Programme in the past, because of the economic situation, somehow the crisis at the end of 2008 had an impact on the donations of these countries. But nevertheless, some of the major countries, such as the US, since the start, have been a major donor to the programme on a bi-lateral basis. The European Commission has been very generous all these years by giving money to Afghanistan. I was informed, just before the start of this press conference that the EC has allocated another 20 million Euros for the coming year. Canada has also been very generous, the United Kingdom as well, and also countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.
One thing that is new, we have also been to the Gulf States, the Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and also to other Islamic organizations such as the Arab League, in order to see if we can get some funding through these countries that unfortunately have not given to the Afghan Mine Action Programme in the last 20 years.
ARIANA [translated from Dari]: If you consider the Russians invaded Afghanistan with thousands of their forces and it took just a few years to get rid of them. Now after all these years there are still mines and we still ask for more funding and this task is not completed and it will still take some time. Is this all due to the fact that maybe there is corruption at the mine action entities, implementing partners and non-governmental organizations?
MACCA: You have to keep in mind that mine action as an act is not something easy. I extend an invitation to all of you that you are more than welcome to be our guest at our operations. We will take you to the mine action field. The minute you go there your hair stands up because you are dealing with your life. As we Afghans say you are actually holding your life in the palm of your hand and God forbid anything could go wrong and then you are dead or disabled for life. So these people who are kneeling on their knees and just poking the ground with an instrument like a knife have to be extremely careful.
The thirty six people that were wounded and two who were killed were not killed and injured because they were just playing around or playing soccer or having a good time. It was because the minute they were poking and excavating maybe the knife touched the wrong part of the mine and it exploded. So this all takes time.
On corruption – no. Deminers in the field get US$ 200 a month and there are more than 10,000 deminers nowadays, a small army actually.
In terms of corruption, because at our office we’re asking for the proposals for the projects that have to be evaluated from every angle from a technical sense and budget wise and every sense. So we to the best of our ability will never allow room for corruption. What I cannot say for 100 per cent sure is that if we are allocated a running cost for a given office and if somebody is just trimming off from that running cost just to personal benefit, I cannot say we 100 per cent clear. But when it comes to actual demining operations we are very sensitive and very careful and like I said it’s a technical thing based on technical calculations in terms of one man one lane how, long it will take and how much money is required.
PAJHWOK [translated from Dari]: Two questions: Of all the mines that have been laid in Afghanistan I would like to know which countries made those mines? In addition to the world economic crisis since 2008, are there any another reasons that donor countries are not supporting you enough?
MACCA: In regard to mines, unfortunately based on our experiences over all these years most of the mines found in Afghanistan come from the Soviet times. There are also mines from countries like Italy, the UK, Iran, Pakistan and so forth. Unfortunately Afghanistan is a country where almost all kinds of mines have poured into.
In terms of funding you cannot really put too many conditions on donors if they have problems. They have been generous. If they decide not to give enough or more it’s for their own internal reasons. We try our best and we knock on every possible door for support but we do not have the final control on why more money is not given. As an example let me tell you that in December 2007 I was in Ottawa and the Government of Canada at the time made an announcement of 80 million Canadian dollars for the next four years for our operations in Afghanistan but that 80 million has now changed to 42 million, so 38 million dollars has been somehow lost.
BBC [translated from Dari]: Are countries present in Afghanistan giving money to the mine action programmes and how much money are you asking for your programmes?
MACCA: The easy part is that we have asked for US$ 242 million for the coming year, 1389. Of those countries that are here in Afghanistan, some of them are member states of the Ottawa Convention. Afghanistan became a fully fledged member of the Convention in March 2003 and at that time when we became a member, one article in the Convention called on all the member states to support the other member states which were in need of financial and technical assistance to get rid of mines and ERWs. So Afghanistan has received some donations from these countries but not necessarily from the international military present in Afghanistan right now; they have not been able to give us money for mine action because their mandate is simply different.