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Diplomacy in Action

2010 To Walk the Earth in Safety: The United States' Conventional Weapons Destruction Program

Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
July 1, 2010


Explosive remnants of war (ERW), at-risk small arms and light weapons (SA/LW), including man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), and unsecure or unstable conventional munitions pose both a national security threat and a humanitarian threat. The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) addresses these hazards comprehensively through its Conventional Weapons Destruction Program.

Date: 2010 Description: Newest product of the illicit weapons industry, Danao, Philippines.  © Lucian Read/Small Arms Survey
Newest product of the illicit weapons industry. Danao, PHILIPPINES. [© Lucian Read/Small Arms Survey]
Around the world, post-conflict battlefields are littered with more than unexploded landmines and other ERW. Caches and makeshift stockpiles of weapons and ammunition also remain. In active war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, items in these stockpiles can be transformed into improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that insurgents can use against National Government and Coalition Forces. These items pose a grave threat to the innocent civilians who must return to live and work in these areas. In the developing world, weapons storage facilities that were once well outside of the confines of a city in relatively isolated areas are now encroached upon by population growth and urban expansion. Depot explosions that occurred in Gerdec, Albania and Maputo, Mozambique killing more than 100 and injuring more than 600, are stark examples of what can happen when such accidents occur. National governments, agencies and domestic and international organizations must have the funding, training, and flexibility to mitigate these threats.

Date: 2010 Description: A team of military engineers exiting a minefield in Chile.  © Erik Tollefson
A team of military engineers exiting a minefield in CHILE. [Erik Tollefson] Date: 2010 Description: A physical security team improves the security of a police armory's window in Burundi.  © MAG Burundi A physical security team improves the security of a police armory’s window in BURUNDI. [MAG Burundi] Date: 2010 Description: MANPADS (SA-7s) being prepared for destruction in Montenegro. © Ken Underwood, EOD Solutions
MANPADS (SA-7s) being prepared for destruction in MONTENEGRO. [Ken Underwood, EOD Solutions]
While PM/WRA has traditionally addressed all of these issues, we realize that the lines between ERW, at-risk weapons, and munitions have become blurred over time. For this reason, our programs and funding have merged into a more comprehensive approach called Conventional Weapons Destruction (CWD). CWD groups the funding of programs for the clearance of landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and ERW, the destruction and demilitarization efforts for SA/LW, MANPADS, and conventional munitions, as well as efforts to increase physical security and stockpile management (PSSM). This combined CWD approach ensures that all of these items will be handled at the same time to reduce the humanitarian and national security risks. By consolidating these separate programs into one, we offer ease and flexibility of funding and allow program implementers to address multiple threats simultaneously. A more detailed discussion of the various elements of the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Program follows.

Formally established in 1993, the interagency U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) Program is the largest and one of the world’s longest standing such programs. PM/WRA, acting on behalf of the Department of State, partners in this effort with the Department of Defense (DOD), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Through this interagency effort, the United States remains the world’s top contributor to HMA, contributing tens of millions of dollars annually to rid the world of landmines, the majority of which have been manufactured and employed by other countries and foreign combatants. The HMA program operates worldwide to clear landmines and ERW, further develop mine-clearance technology, train deminers in affected countries, provide mine-risk education, and provide survivors’ assistance.

The program focuses on three major “pillars:” (1) mine detection and clearance, (2) mine-risk education, and (3) survivor assistance. Mine detection and clearance includes the systematic process of identifying hazardous areas through Landmine Impact Survey (a community-based national survey that measures the impact of the landmine problem), reducing those areas through Technical Survey (a detailed study that confirms the extent of the ERW problem), and then clearing the known contamination. Mine- and ERW-risk education involves teaching local citizens how to recognize landmines and explosive remnants of war and instructing them to inform demining authorities of the presence of such hazards in order to reduce casualties. Survivor assistance takes the form of medical and rehabilitative services, as well as reintegration and support services, for both the victims and their families.

International law states that those who lay mines identify the types of landmines emplaced, and map their locations for removal at the end of hostilities. While U.S. law prohibits U.S. Forces from clearing other countries’ mines, the humanitarian demining partnership between the Department of State and DOD is critical. Through the Humanitarian Demining Training Center, DOD trains host-nation forces to build capacity and carry out demining operations in a sustainable and cost effective manner. DOD’s Humanitarian Demining Research and Development Program provides new technologies to increase the level and efficiency of clearance operations.

Date: 2010 Description: A U.N. peacekeeper from the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo examines AK-47 magazines stored in a warehouse in Beni in North Kivu.  © United Nations Photo/Martine Perret
A U.N. peacekeeper from the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo examines AK-47 magazines stored in a warehouse in Beni in North Kivu. [United Nations Photo/Martine Perret]
USAID, through the Leahy War Victims Fund and Bureau of Humanitarian Response, works to improve the mobility, health, and social integration of the disabled, including landmine survivors. The CDC’s International Emergency and Refugee Health Branch provides technical and financial support to nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies for public-health projects and activities related to surveillance for ER W-related injuries, mine-risk education, and survivor assistance.

The United States is also the global leader in fighting the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SA/LW) and conventional munitions. Many countries have stockpiles of aging, often unstable, weapons and munitions dating back to the Cold War (or even earlier) that are no longer needed for their national security. Not only do these stockpiles and weapons pose a major public-safety hazard in populated areas, they create an environmental threat. Since they are also often poorly secured, these weapons and munitions are easy targets for terrorists, criminals, and insurgent groups. PM/WRA helps develop and implement U.S. policies regarding these threats, and executes programs to destroy excess and surplus weapons and munitions as well as to secure those items identified as required for national security.

Date: 2010 Description: A deminer in Cambodia dons the necessary protective equipment before beginning her work.  © Sean Sutton/MAG
A deminer in CAMBODIA dons the necessary protective equipment before beginning her work. [© Sean Sutton/MAG]
The U.S. works to improve global and national mechanisms for controlling weapons by assisting states in improving their export-control practices, providing physical security and stockpile management (PSSM) for at-risk arms and munitions depots, and destroying excess weapons around the world. These efforts include supporting initiatives of the United Nations and other international and regional organizations to address illicit transnational arms transfers through the marking and tracing of SA/LW and strengthening controls on arms brokers. If a nation requests assistance, PM/WRA and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) work closely with the host nation to offer technical assistance on PSSM issues, develop and execute cost-effective projects that meet the needs of the requesting government, and promote regional security. These efforts have resulted in the destruction of over 1.3 million at-risk weapons and 50,000 tons of unstable and unsecure ammunition.

Man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS (also referred to as shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles), are small, light, and easy to transport and conceal. Assessments of total global MANPADS production to date exceed one million, with thousands believed to be outside of government control. The Department of State estimates that since the 1970s, MANPADS were employed against more than 40 civilian aircraft, resulting in at least 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths worldwide. After the November 2002 attempted shoot-down of a civilian airliner in Kenya with MANPADS, the United States intensified its already considerable efforts to keep these weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

Date: 2010 Description: Obsolete munitions ready for destruction in Nicaragua. © OAS Mine Action Program
Obsolete munitions ready for destruction in NICARAGUA. [OAS Mine Action Program]
Countering the proliferation of MANPADS is an overriding U.S. national security priority. At the direction of the White House, a MANPADS interagency task force was created in 2007 that coordinates the efforts of the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies and organizations. Within the Department of State, the Bureau of Political- Military Affairs (PM/WRA) and the Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation collaborate to reduce the threat of illicit proliferation of MANPADS. The DOD provides expertise to other countries on the proper management and control of MANPADS through DTR A, and enforces stringent physical security and accountability for MANPADS in U.S. possession. This concerted, interagency approach has resulted in the destruction of over 32,000 MANPADS worldwide since 2003.

The United States has provided mine action assistance to more than 80 countries since 1993, and it continues to provide the most financial support for landmine removal, CWD and PSSM projects in the world—$1.8 billion since the USG HMA Program began. Often, even after a country has met its “end state” and has been rendered free from the humanitarian impact of landmines and UXO, the USG continues to provide limited funds and technical assistance. Because of the impossibility of clearing every landmine in every affected country or region, the United States believes that humanitarian mine action should focus on making the world “mine-impact free,” or free from the humanitarian impact of landmines, and the USG continues to work toward a goal to allow everyone “to walk the Earth in safety.”

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