Previewing UN International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Operator, and thanks, everyone, for joining us this afternoon for today’s on-background conference call on the UN International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. We’re joined today by two State Department officials. We’re joined by [Senior State Department Official One]. We’re also joined by [Senior State Department Official Two]. As a reminder, today’s call is on background. [They] can be attributed as senior State Department officials, and the call will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to our first speaker.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. This is [Senior State Department Official One]. I’ll give a bit of an overview of our program, and then we can open it for questions after that.
So the United States – well, first of all, tomorrow is International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, as designated by the United Nations. The U.S. works closely with partners around the world, both civil society nongovernmental organizations and other countries, to address this serious humanitarian challenge. We are active in more than – in providing assistance and have current programs in more than 40 countries right now.
Historically, the program started – the U.S. Government’s program started in 1993 with a focus on humanitarian mine action, and we added in 2001 small arms light weapons and munitions destruction and stockpile security to that. To date, we have provided over 2.8 billion, with a B, dollars of assistance in over 95 countries.
The range of activities include on the humanitarian mine action side clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, provision of assistance to landmine survivors as far as rehabilitation and reintegration, mine risk education for civilians in impacted areas so they can learn to avoid the dangers.
And all of this applies as well to unexploded ordnance. In some countries, the main threat is the ordnance that did not go off but is still dangerous, whereas in other areas a larger threat might be the mines themselves. In recent years, in certain areas, improvised explosive devices have also become an increasingly more prominent part of the mix in certain countries.
The other part of the program again relates to small arms light weapons and ammunition, so it includes working with countries to destroy their excess and/or at-risk weapons and munitions so they don’t fall into the wrong hands so they’re not a proliferation threat. This also includes helping them with physical security and stockpile management so that the weapons and munitions they need to keep for legitimate defense purposes can be properly maintained and secured, and do not end up in the wrong hands, be they insurgents or terrorists.
It also includes destruction of ammunition that may be unstable or volatile because it’s been improperly maintained and is old and is a humanitarian risk for depot explosions, which, sadly, over the last 20 years or so, we’ve seen numerous of these where explosions occurring in depots that often are now in very urban or populated areas where they may have been built originally in the countryside and have resulted in a high number of casualties.
So the program mixes both the humanitarian impact and from now on, I’ll focus more on humanitarian mine action since that’s really what we’re talking about with tomorrow’s UN day. But there’s a humanitarian impact, but there’s also a strong regional security and national security aspect to this which has been particularly highlighted in the last couple years by – as part of the defeat ISIS campaign.
Many of the areas that have been liberated or in the process of being liberated from ISIS are severely contaminated with landmines and/or unexploded ordnance. And tragically, in some of these areas, such as Ramadi, there has been a high number of improvised explosive devices, some of which operate – some as landmines, some of which operate as booby traps or other devices, that are spread around key infrastructure points or in houses purely as a terror weapon.
And part – an important part of the defeat ISIS campaign is the stabilization efforts, and the first thing that needs to be done is to be able to get in there and clear the UXO, clear the landmines, clear the IEDs, so the internally displaced persons and refugees can safely return to their areas, and also by clearing around key infrastructure points so that water service can be restored, sanitation service, electricity, et cetera.
A main focus of this area right now is in Iraq, where over the last year we have provided over $33 million in such support, providing risk education to the civilians – over 90,000 in that time, clearing the IEDs around – and UXO and mines in Anbar province and specifically around Ramadi, as well as continuing to clear older legacy contamination in both the southern and northern parts of the country. We’ve actually been working in Iraq for quite a few years now.
The United States is the largest provider financially of – to our humanitarian mine action programs and conventional weapons destruction. Our annual funding is – it always fluctuates a little each year, but it’s roughly a quarter of the funding provided by all donors worldwide. At the March 22nd ministerial on – of the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS, Secretary Tillerson highlighted the essential role that demining plays in stabilization both in Iraq and Syria as civilians seek to return to their homes. So this has been a priority of the U.S. Government for some time. It continues to be a priority as we go forward in our campaign to defeat ISIS.
With that, I’ll stop with the overview and we’re happy to answer questions. Is there anything, [Senior State Department Official Two], you want to add to that before we open it for questions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay.
OPERATOR: Okay. Once again, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone to place yourself in queue for questions at any time, * then 1.
And we have the first question from the line of Lucia Leal of EFE. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yep.
QUESTION: Hi, I have a question on Colombia. The demining activities just started in many parts of the country under the peace agreement, and the Peace Colombia program that was announced by the Obama administration included a big emphasis on that – those demining activities, but those funds are not yet flowing. Can you guarantee to the Colombians that the cuts in the State Department budget will not reduce U.S. assistance to their demining activities?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So the United States, of course, was very proud to partner with the Kingdom of Norway in leading the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia. And last September at the UN General Assembly on the margins, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Brende together with President Santos hosted a ministerial pledging conference to raise international contributions for demining in Colombia. Over $107 million in pledges were raised during that ministerial, and there’s great hope that those resources that were pledged will come online soon. It wasn’t just pledges from the United States and Norway, but there were, I believe, 22 other entities, including the EU, that pledged substantial assistance to Colombia demining.
Right now as the United States works through its budget process both for the current budget here that we’re in right now, Fiscal Year 2017, as well as the next budget year, we are evaluating how our assistance funds can be best utilized to support the highest U.S. priorities. Supporting the peace process in Colombia has traditionally been a high priority for the United States. We look forward to working with the Colombian Government in order to make sure that our assistance dollars are utilized as effectively as possible.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Next question.
OPERATOR: And once again, please press *1 on your touchtone phone for questions and the pound key to remove yourself from that queue, * then 1 at any time.
All right. Now, at this time, we have no questions in queue.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is [Senior State Department Official One] again. One thing that I’ll mention is that we have an annual publication called To Walk The Earth In Safety. It is a comprehensive overview of our conventional weapons destruction programs around the world. It goes region by region, country by country for the previous year, so the one that’s come out – actually, the current one came out last year covering through the end of 2015. We’re looking to get the new one out in a few months. It also includes historical information on total funding in each region in each country, breaks it down by the different activities, whether it’s humanitarian mine action or weapons and ammunition destruction or stockpile security.
So we have hard copies, but it’s also available online if you go to the state.gov site, backslash T, backslash PM, backslash WRA. Again, state.gov/t/pm/wra. Or you can follow us at State – State Department – DeptPM also. We send out a lot of tweets related to our programs and blogs as well on visits and assessments with pictures and specific countries where we’re working.
OPERATOR: One moment, please, for the next question. And we have a question from the line of Kylie Atwood of CBS News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to clarify. I didn’t quite hear you. You said that there has been 33 million spent on demining efforts in Iraq in the past how many years? And could you give us historical references for the amount that the U.S. has spent in other countries where this has been a primary kind of focus for the U.S. in terms of dollar signs? How much is that in comparison to other places where this work has been done? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Absolutely. That $33 million for Iraq, that was over the past year where we’ve spent that, and that was a substantial increase over our funding for demining in Iraq year to year. The reason for that, obviously, was because of the contamination created by ISIS’s occupation and subsequent push out of Anbar and Nineveh provinces.
Removing explosive remnants of war that resulted from the fight against ISIS – primarily a lot of IEDs that were placed by ISIS in civilian areas with a goal to kill and maim civilians or humanitarian actors that would work to defeat those devices – it’s a top priority for the U.S. Government, and the reason is you can’t provide broader stabilization support. So you can’t get the water turned back on; you can’t get the electricity flowing again; you can’t get sewage systems functioning; you can’t rebuild roads; and you can’t have schools and hospitals open until you ensure that explosive hazards have been cleared from those sites and that it’s safe for a broader humanitarian effort to go in and restore that critical infrastructure. So demining in areas that were liberated from ISIS control is a critical precursor to a broader stabilization support, which is the reason that the United States put $33 million into Iraq last year alone.
Comparatively speaking, in the past year Iraq was by far our largest program. After that, our next largest program would have been Afghanistan in the neighborhood of about $21 million. Afghanistan is the most heavily affected country affected by landmines in the world. They have the highest contamination rates and the highest civilian casualty rates, and the United States has been supporting Afghan demining efforts for quite some time.
Laos has also historically been a very large program for us. In the last year, our support into Laos was about $30 million, and that was actually a combination of a couple of different fiscal years’ worth of funding that we were able to bring to bear simultaneously. Laos is most heavily impacted by U.S. origin munitions that remain from the Vietnam War, primarily cluster munitions, and cleaning up that – those U.S.-caused explosive remnants of war has also been a priority for us historically.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If I can add to that, [Senior State Department Official Two] highlighted our biggest programs, but you also asked where does that – where is that relative to other programs, and those certainly – those ones that are in the $20-million-dollar range and now a few because of the new priorities that are up around 30 or 33 million like Iraq are by far our largest. But as I mentioned earlier, we are in over 40 countries, and the size of the programs really runs the whole gamut. Some of them are a million or even less. Some of that is because – it’s not because it’s not a priority, but in a few countries they’re getting close to being done, so it’s more just capacity building and things of that nature to help a country get across the finish line. But the size of the programs really run the full spectrum.
MODERATOR: Next question.
OPERATOR: And we do have a follow-up question from the line of Lucia Leal, Efe. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Yeah, you were giving out some figures for Iraq and Afghanistan. I was wondering if you have a figure for Colombia, how much you spend there. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So last year in Colombia we spent approximately $5-and-a-half million on humanitarian demining efforts, and that was largely in advance of the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia, which didn't come about until September. That $5-and-a-half million was actually a $2 million increase year over year from what we had spent there the previous year. So demining assistance to Colombia was already on the upswing by the time we moved into that ministerial in September.
Our assistance in Colombia – really, we want to focus on building the capacity of the Colombian Government to deal with the landmine program long-term. The Government of Colombia is a tremendous partner of ours, and they are dedicated to solving this problem themselves. They’re looking to the international community and the United States to help train them and get them best positioned in order to deal with the problem long-term, and that’s really going to be the focus of our effort there going forward.
OPERATOR: And once again, if there are additional questions, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone, * then 1. Okay, at this time we have no questions in queue.
MODERATOR: Okay. I’ll turn it, then, back over to our speakers one last time.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I guess just in conclusion, I’ll mention that we remain committed to working with our international partners to address both the humanitarian and security threats from landmines, UXO, and at-risk weapons and munitions globally. And as I mentioned before, the fact that our programs really run the gamut, in some of these countries, a little money, relatively speaking, can go an awful long way in helping them get over the finish line or build the capacity that they need to continue on their own. Even if they are able to declare themselves mine-free, things at some point may turn up. We have European states, of course, that still find bombs from World War II or even World War I. So it’s important for them to be able to maintain that residual capacity and expertise.
But it’s really a good news story not just on security, of course, but on the humanitarian side, when the land is cleared and the displaced civilians are able to return home, rebuild their communities and lives, and also open new opportunities for business and trade, whether it’s small private businesses or being able to get into their farmland. And you can imagine the difference it makes when the children can walk to school safely and you don’t have to worry about them veering off the path into a field that maybe has mines, or when the women and children can access water safely from a nearby source instead of possibly having to walk many kilometers roundtrip because of the landmine threat near their village.
So again, it’s something we remain committed to and we look forward to continuing to partner with our friends and allies and NGOs worldwide.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would just add too that demining assistance from the United States isn’t just humanitarian assistance. It really does serve core U.S. interests as well. A stable, secure Iraq is clearly in the United States interests, and our demining programs in Iraq, clearing areas that were liberated from ISIL, are a precursor to us achieving that long-term goal, just as we talked about in Colombia where our demining efforts supporting the broader peace process with the FARC.
So demining isn’t just a humanitarian aim; it has a national security dimension to it as well that we’re proud to serve.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much to our speakers and for those participants who joined us on the call. As a reminder, this call was on background; these gentlemen can be attributed as senior State Department officials. And with the conclusion of the call, the embargo is now over. Thanks very much.