MR GUILBERT: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. What I wanted to do is just start off with some brief remarks and then we’ll open it up for your questions.
Tomorrow, April 4th, we mark International Landmine Awareness Day in recognition of the great suffering that landmines and explosive remnants of war, or ERW as we say, continue to bring to thousands of people around the world. And it’s also an opportune time to let people know just what the United States is doing to tackle this problem. Today we’re pleased to release the 18th edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, which is the State Department’s annual report on U.S. conventional weapons destruction assistance efforts around the globe.
The conventional weapons destruction program improves international security through two main lines of effort: small arms and light weapons threat reduction programs, as well as our humanitarian mine action assistance efforts. Now, stockpiles of excess small arms and light weapons pose a range of security-related and humanitarian threats. Terrorists, insurgents, and criminals exploit poorly secured munitions to fuel instability and violence that imperil U.S. security interests. And where poorly secured stockpiles include man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS as they’re called, the consequences of theft or loss could have wide-ranging catastrophic outcomes. Conventional weapons destruction programs assist partner countries with destroying their excess, unstable, and at-risk munitions, improving physical security at munitions storage facilities, and bringing stockpile management practices into line with international standards.
Now, the dangers posed by landmines and other ERW can linger for decades in post-conflict environments. In areas that are reeling from recent fighting, stabilization and humanitarian assistance efforts effectively are blocked until ERW, improvised explosive devices, and landmines can be cleared from key sites. Civilian populations living near minefields and ERW-contaminated land face permanent injury or death by performing simple everyday activities such as accessing clean water, playing, or just walking to work. To mitigate these problems, conventional weapons destruction programs include a range of humanitarian mine action assistance activities including hazard area surveys to find contaminated land, landmine and ERW clearance activities, as well as risk education for vulnerable populations who live near these dangerous items, and some assistance for landmine and ERW survivors as well.
Now, according to the 2018 Landmine Monitor, casualties resulting from landmines and other ERW, including victim-activated IEDs, has declined recently, dropping from about 9,400 in 2016 to about 7,200 recorded in 2017, which is the most recent year for which we have complete data. Most of those reported casualties, unfortunately, continue to be civilians. And while this decrease is welcome news, it’s more than double the casualties reported in 2013, which was the historic low point recorded by the Landmine Monitor. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that in 2017 the lion’s share of casualties were recorded in Afghanistan and Syria.
Now, the United States places great importance on protecting civilians as an essential ingredient for creating stable and prosperous partners. Conventional weapons destruction programs play a large role in this effort, and since 1993 the United States has provided more than 3.4 billion, with a “b,” in conventional weapons destruction assistance to over 100 countries, with active programs in 59 countries during 2018 alone.
To Walk the Earth in Safety documents many of our success stories from 2018 and demonstrates that beyond their profound humanitarian impact, conventional weapons destruction programs serve some of America’s key foreign policy interests. Now, for example, since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, the United States has invested more than $132 million into the country for conventional weapons destruction projects. This includes surveying clearance operations to remove explosive hazards remaining from the Vietnam War, risk education programs to warn area residents of potential dangers, survivors assistance efforts to help the injured with prosthetics and rehabilitation, and supporting Vietnamese authorities as they build their own capacity to help manage this challenge on their own over the long term.
Now, addressing this legacy of war has allowed us to move beyond the past in our bilateral relationship with Vietnam, and today we’re focusing primarily on strengthening our partnership for a better, more secure future together. Now, landmines and UXO do remain a persistent threat throughout many countries in East Asia as well as the Pacific Islands. And in 2018, the United States funded programs in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as I mentioned, to clear UXO, including U.S.-origin munitions such as cluster munition remnants, as well as landmines. These landmines and unexploded ordnance continue to pose a threat to the people of the region and hamper economic development more than 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, and more than 70 years after World War II.
In Iraq, the United States contributed $40 million in 2018 to support the clearance of explosive hazards including IEDs, and continue mine risk education efforts throughout the country to facilitate stabilization activity and promote the safe return of displaced persons, including ethnic and religious minority communities who were persecuted and systematically targeted by ISIS. On that note, I’m proud to announce the recent deployment of five new U.S.-funded demining teams in southern Sinjar. This brings the total number of U.S.-funded survey and clearance teams in Sinjar to 11, which is more than any other international donor. In fact, the United States was the first international donor to support demining activities in Sinjar. We funded six survey and clearance teams in early 2016. We remain dedicated to supporting this important work today. U.S.-funded efforts to clear ISIS’s deadly legacy have played a pivotal role in facilitating the restoration of critical infrastructure, access to fertile farmland, and the safe return of communities displaced by ISIS. And all told, our implementing partners more – cleared more than 22 million square meters of Iraqi territory liberated from ISIS in 2018.
In the Balkans and Ukraine, the United States provided assistance to build national capacity and support regional security through land clearance and land release programs in addition to weapons and ammunition destruction efforts. And throughout Africa, we worked with partner governments to destroy stockpiles of small arms, light weapons, and conventional ammunition excess to national defense needs. And we helped those partners improve security and management of their weapons and ammunition storage facilities, making it that much harder for terrorists to get a hold of poorly secured weapons to kill U.S. citizens and attack our allies.
In the Western Hemisphere, the United States provided over $27 million to Colombia to continue surveying and clearing explosive remnants of war and to continue building Colombia’s own national capacity to finish the demining job on its own. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, the United States supported conventional weapon destruction efforts in Central America and Peru to mitigate the risk that illicitly proliferated small arms and light weapons pose to U.S. national security interests.
Now, the initial State Department allocation for conventional weapons destruction in FY2018 was $189 million, with more than $22 million above and beyond that from USAID and Department of Defense programs that complement the State Department’s main line of effort. Our top recipient countries in 2018 were Iraq, with just over $40 million; Laos, with nearly 32 million; Colombia, with just over 27 million, as I mentioned previously; Afghanistan, at about 20.2 million; and Vietnam, at about $12.6 million.
Now with that background, I’d like to open it up – the call to any questions you may have. Thanks.
OPERATOR: And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press *1 at this time. If your question gets answered or you wish to remove yourself from the queue, please press the # key. Again, *1 if you have a question.
And first to the line of Sirwan Kajjo with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Yeah, thanks for inviting me. This is great, the information. I read the report as well; it’s very interesting. But I have a question about Syria. Now that the U.S.-backed forces have declared victory in the last stronghold of ISIS in eastern Syria, what efforts does the United States have in terms of helping local and international groups in demining – basically in demining efforts in that part of the country? And what has the United States also done in 2018 in terms of providing assistance to local groups helping in demining efforts? Thank you.
MR GUILBERT: Yeah, thanks. That’s a great question. Now that the physical caliphate has been defeated, protecting those military gains by bringing stability to northeast Syria is a key U.S. objective. And addressing the explosive hazards that are left in ISIS’s wake is a key priority for U.S. objectives in northeastern Syria. We began demining northeastern Syria – those efforts began back in 2016, and they continue very much to this day.
During 2018, the majority of our efforts to clear IEDs – and it’s primarily IEDs that ISIS left behind to booby-trap key infrastructure, homes, schools, and hospitals – our key IED removal efforts have really focused in Raqqa. And we found that Raqqa is one of the most heavily contaminated places on Earth that our program’s come up against since 1993. Our efforts are primarily focused at enabling follow-on stabilization and humanitarian aid to take place. So for example, we’re clearing facilities to allow MSF to establish health clinics. We’re clearing water pumping stations and sewage treatment facilities so that clean water can begin flowing into Raqqa. We’re clearing the electrical grid, and we’re also clearing things like schools so life can begin returning to some semblance of normalcy.
Since we began our work in northeast Syria, U.S.-funded implementing partners have cleared more than 25 and a half – excuse me, 25,000 explosive hazards from 24.5 million square meters of land. That’s about 6,000 acres of land that our implementing partners have cleared in Manbij, Tabqa, and Raqqa. We’ve also trained over 300 Syrian nationals to international demining standards. As I noted, our focus has been on critical infrastructure sites. And in fact, we cleared last year over 650 critical infrastructure sites, including a lot of schools, which allowed the Raqqa school year to begin for the first time since ISIS initially occupied the city.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Max Avery with Radio Free Asia. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. My question’s about Laos. You mentioned that U.S. continue to provide financial support for UXO clearing in the country. But I would like to know probably I need the – your – what you just said earlier. How much U.S. – how much did U.S. provide financial support to Laos just to – this year? Is that – does that financial support include the Obama $90 million support? If that does include, what about Obama financial support will end? It will end this year or next year? Thank you.
MR GUILBERT: Great question. So in 2018, the United States committed $30 million to addressing explosive remnants of war in Laos. Now, the $30 million that we committed to Laos last year was actually the final tranche of $90 million that the United States had committed to over a three-year period back in 2016. So that $90 million deliverable, it has been met. But above and beyond that, I’m pleased to also say that in the 2019 appropriation that Congress just enacted not too long ago, there is an earmark to provide an additional $30 million for Laos in the coming year. So that’s $30 million above and beyond the initial $90 million pledge.
In 2018, that $30 million, it was split evenly between – what we’re doing are trying to survey the six most heavily contaminated provinces in Laos to pinpoint where the greatest amount of UXO contamination is. That will give us a holistic picture of the most heavily contaminated parts of Laos where we can then focus our clearance efforts to begin remediating that.
So about half of that $30 million last year, roughly $15 million, went to that survey effort. The remaining $15 million went to clearing land that has been identified in previous years’ surveys. So while we look for contaminated areas to get a holistic picture of what the contamination looks like in Laos, we’re not waiting until that survey’s completed to do the clearings. As that survey is being conducted, we have clearance teams. We’re following those – right in the wake of those survey teams to clean that land up to make it safe for people to return to daily life.
And beyond clearance efforts, we’re also supporting a lot of miner’s education, so people who do live in those heavily contaminated provinces know how to stay safe from the threat posed by cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance as they go about their daily lives.
And we’re also working hand-in-hand with USAID and the Leahy War Victims Fund to provide assistance to victims of UXO for prosthetics and rehabilitation so they can try and get their lives back on track.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Emiliana Molina with NTN24. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. So I was wondering if after the signing of the peace process with Colombia if you guys have noticed an increase, decrease, or a continuation of mines around the most affected areas, which are Antioquia, Caqueta, Meta, Narino, and Norte de Santander. So how this has helped either the demining process or if it remains pretty much the same?
MR GUILBERT: Yeah, so since the peace accord was signed, that was a huge leap forward for demining efforts in Colombia. The United States and Norway together co-chaired this global demining initiative for Colombia. There was actually a pledging conference at a UN General Assembly a couple of years ago, which raised about $107 million from the international community to help demine Colombia, including a $33 million pledge from the United States.
What the peace accord did was open up a lot of areas in Colombia that had previously been off limits to demining organizations because of the security situation. So that allowed a lot of international and local Colombian NGOs, who are engaged in landmine clearance, to get out into communities that had been living under FARC control, begin demining those communities, and demonstrate to them through demining, which is allowing licit cultivation of crops to resume in a lot of these areas and daily life to resume, that the peace accord is in their interest and that the international community is behind them.
So the peace accord was a watershed for allowing access, and that access has allowed us to start doing things like conducting holistic surveys of entire municipalities and districts in Colombia to identify where is the greatest amount of contamination, clear that contamination as we go, and continue working with local communities, again to provide that critical risk education so they know how to stay safe.
There is still some instability in some portions of Colombia where there – where elements of the FARC who refused to disarm. Safety for our demining implementers is always at the forefront, not just of our thinking, but of the Government of Colombia’s thinking too. And we work very, very closely with Descontamina, which is the Colombian national demining authority, to make sure that international efforts are effectively coordinated, but also that those implementers are only working in areas where it’s safe for them to work.
OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, a quick reminder. If you do have a question, please press *1 at this time. We do have a follow-up from Max Avery. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, again about Laos. It has been reported recently – actually just last week – that the Lao Government has made short of the money for the UXO clearance. I just wonder if U.S. can provide more financial assistance to that.
MR GUILBERT: Yes, I think you’re referring to UXO Lao which is sort of a – the Government of Laos —
QUESTION: UXO Lao.
MR GUILBERT: UXO Lao, which is their national operator. UXO Lao has been an incredibly invaluable implementing partner for us for several years. In 2018, we actually funded 51 clearance teams that are working for UXO Lao. That’s roughly 680 Lao citizens who were employed directly with U.S. funding who work for UXO Lao. So they’ve been an tremendous implementing partner. Obviously, we see great value in the work we do, and that’s why we’ve been willing to fund it. But regarding budget shortfalls and that sort of thing, I think we’d have to refer you back to UXO Lao or the Government of Laos for more specific information on their internal operating budgets.
OPERATOR: And we have a follow-up from Emiliana Molina. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, sorry, to follow up, I was just wondering if you feel that the government of Ivan Duque has been cooperating in these efforts of decontamination or if you are kind of like a bit more stuck since Santos left office.
MR GUILBERT: Yeah, we actually – I just had my Colombia team down in Bogota last week for some initial meetings with the new folks who are in charge of Descontamina and the overall demining effort for President Duque. I’m pleased to say that the Duque administration is 100 percent committed to working with the international community to make these demining efforts as effective and efficient as possible. We — no matter where we implement programs around the globe, there are always little issues that we try to work on with the host government to improve effectiveness and efficiency of our clearance operations. We had very, very productive conversations with representatives from the Duque administration last week. And like I said, they are 100 percent supportive and 100 percent committed to helping our program succeed there.
OPERATOR: And again, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press *1. And allowing a few moments, Mr. Guilbert, no further questions coming in.
MR GUILBERT: All right. If there are no further questions, thanks again for listening to what we have to say about U.S. conventional weapons destruction programs around the world. If anyone has any follow-up questions, please feel free to reach out to Andy Strike in the PM Bureau’s office of Congressional and Public Affairs [firstname.lastname@example.org]. We’ll be glad to organize all the follow-up conversations that you’d like. But that concludes the formal portion of today’s call. So thanks a lot.