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Diplomacy in Action

2011 To Walk the Earth in Safety: History of Conventional Weapons Destruction

Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
July 1, 2011


The United States' Commitment to Conventional Weapons Destruction 

 Date: 2011 Description: Man-portable air-defense systems in Montenegro. © Photo courtesy of Dave Diaz, PM/WRA, U.S. Dept. of State.
Man-portable air-defense systems in Montenegro. Photo courtesy of Dave Diaz, PM/WRA, U.S. Dept. of State.
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 U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) addresses these hazards comprehensively through its Conventional Weapons Destruction Program.


Unexploded landmines, ERW, weapons caches, and makeshift stockpiles of weapons and ammunition litter post-conflict battlefields and communities around the world. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are easily created from stockpiles and used by insurgents against national government and coalition forces in active war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. As innocent civilians return to post-conflict zones to live and work, these items pose a grave threat. Population growth and urban expansion in the developing world place civilians closer to weapons- storage facilities that were once far outside of city limits. Disasters result from accidents in these situations—more than 100 people were killed and more than 600 were injured as a result of depot explosions in Gërdec, Albania and Maputo, Mozambique. Funding, training, and flexibility are vital for national governments, agencies, and domestic and international organizations to mitigate these threats.

While PM/WRA has traditionally addressed all of these issues, we realize that the lines between ERW, IEDs, at-risk weapons, and munitions have become blurred over time. For this reason, our programs and funding 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.

History of Funding

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 U.S. 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 donor to HMA, contributing tens of millions of dollars annually to destroy 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 support survivors’ assistance.

Pillars of Support

The three major pillars of the HMA program are (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 teaches local citizens how to recognize landmines and ERW; and instructs them to contact demining authorities with the presence of hazards in order to reduce casualties. Survivor assistance provides medical and rehabilitative services, as well as reintegration and support services, for both the victims and their families.

U.S. Agency Support

According to international law, during conflict the location and type of landmines laid must be recorded for the removal at the conflict’s end. The humanitarian demining partnership between the Department of State and DOD bridges an important gap caused by U.S. law prohibiting U.S. forces from clearing mines except as part of military operations. DOD is able to train host-nation forces to build capacity and carry out demining operations in a sustainable and cost-effective manner through the Humanitarian Demining Training Center. The scope and efficiency of clearance operations are increased due to new technologies provided by DOD’s Humanitarian Demining Research and Development Program.

USAID, through the Leahy War Victims Fund and the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, 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 ERW-related injuries, mine-risk education, and survivor assistance.

Dealing with Threats

The United States is also the global leader in fighting the illicit trafficking of 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, but they also create an environmental threat. In addition, 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.

Small Arms and Light Weapons. The U.S. works to enhance 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 more than 1.3 million at-risk weapons and 50,000 tons of unstable and unsecure ammunition. 

 Date: 2011 Description: Zlatko Gegic, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action's (FSD) program manager in southern Sudan, points to an unexploded cluster submunitions and other explosive remnants of war at a former military base in Juba, Sudan.  © Photo courtesy of John Stevens, PM/WRA, U.S. Dept. of State.
Zlatko Gegic, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action’s (FSD) program manager in southern Sudan, points to an unexploded cluster submunitions and other explosive remnants of war at a former military base in Juba, Sudan. Photo courtesy of John Stevens, PM/WRA, U.S. Dept. of State.

Man-portable Air-defense Systems. MANPADS (also referred to as shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles) are weapons that 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.

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, PM/WRA and the Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation collaborate to reduce the threat of illicit expansion of MANPADS. The DOD provides expertise to other countries on the proper management and control of MANPADS through DTRA, and enforces stringent physical security and accountability for MANPADS in U.S. possession. This concerted, interagency approach has resulted in the destruction of more than 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 United States Government (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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