Good afternoon. My name is Karen Chandler, and I am the Director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (or WRA) within the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. I am honored to participate in today’s UXO Caucus event.
I would like to first thank Representative Jackie Speier and Representative Bill Johnson for their continued leadership of the Congressional UXO Caucus, as well as Representative Omar for participating today. I also want to acknowledge HALO for their continuing role in coordinating these events.
The Department of State takes great pride in leading U.S. efforts across the globe to advance conventional weapons destruction priorities, which include clearing landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other explosive hazards as well as bolstering the capacity of our international partners to manage their arms and ammunition stockpiles safely and securely. These essential humanitarian efforts are made possible by the generosity of the American people and broad bipartisan support in Congress. Today, I would like to highlight our ongoing efforts in the Horn of Africa and underscore how providing conventional weapons destruction assistance to our partners can promote regional stability and counter the influence of malign actors.
The United States has long been the world’s largest international donor to conventional weapons destruction, investing more than $4 billion to support safely clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance as well as helping to secure and safely dispose of at-risk conventional arms and munitions in more than 100 countries since 1993. In Africa alone, the United States has provided more than $509 million in conventional weapons destruction assistance since 1993.
Throughout the region, this effort helps curb pilferage and illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons from state-held stockpiles – including weapons of particular concern, like Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS. This programming makes it harder for terrorists, human traffickers, and criminal gangs to get the weapons and ammunition they need to continue terrorizing local populations and undermining the rule of law. Our work promotes regional stability and economic development, protects U.S. interests abroad, and reduces the risk of catastrophic unplanned explosions at munitions storage sites, such as the March 2021 blast in Bata, Equatorial Guinea that killed an estimated 107 and wounded an additional 613 civilians.
In the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the continent, traffickers, criminal gangs, and violent extremist organizations (VEOs), such as Al Shabab, use illegally obtained small arms and light weapons to advance a culture of violence and fear that threatens civilian security and contributes to the root causes of instability. According to the University of Maryland, six of the ten countries experiencing the most deaths by terrorism in 2019 lie within Africa, making this work even more important. Responsible stockpile management practices reduce the number of illicit weapons available throughout the region and disrupt terrorist activities contributing to instability.
Conflicts in the Horn of Africa continue to threaten regional stability. Increasing violence in Ethiopia and Somalia contribute to the risk of illicit diversion of small arms and light weapons while making growing numbers of civilians vulnerable to injury or death from mines and unexploded ordnance. These conflicts contribute to driving forced displacement and increasing regional instability.
In Ethiopia, the United States already has contributed more than $600 million in humanitarian aid to alleviate suffering from the conflict, and we are looking for opportunities to do more, although the dynamic nature of ongoing fighting and the very real dangers faced by aid workers limit our options. We also remain the leading international donor for physical security and stockpile management and weapons and ammunition destruction efforts in the Horn of Africa. Recently the region has seen increasingly sophisticated attacks from violent extremist organizations, including the January 2020 attack at Manda Bay. These complex attacks often target remote outposts with vulnerable stockpiles of small arms and light weapons, which are then used to reequip and resupply violent extremist organizations. The illicit seizure of state held stockpiles also fuels regional instability, as transnational smuggling and trafficking routes out of Somalia are increasingly utilized to fuel fighting in countries such as Yemen.
While much remains to be achieved, our most successful ongoing engagement in the region is in Somalia, where our partners are conducting programs to curb the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, and to remediate the risk of unexploded ordnance and other explosive hazards to local populations and prevent illicit groups from retrieving and utilizing these hazards for nefarious purposes. The Department of State aims to expand programming in FY 2022 to include monitoring of illicit arms markets and programs to mark and trace small arms and light weapons divested to partner forces by the U.S Department of Defense.
Our implementing partners in the Horn of Africa, like HALO and MAG, have worked to find innovative ways to assess and address the threat that vulnerable small arms and light weapons pose to the region. In 2020 and 2021 alone, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-funded efforts have resulted in the construction of 18 secure structures to safely store small arms and light weapons and in the destruction of more than 2,875 items. Despite the pandemic, U.S. funded efforts also trained over 100 Somali security personnel in physical security and stockpile management and explosive ordnance disposal. Additionally, we have seen the introduction of data-based assessments, which increase collaboration amongst donors and provide information that can inform current and future U.S. conventional weapons destruction priorities.
In conclusion, the U.S. commitment to conventional weapons destruction in the Horn of Africa continues to grow. Our commitment is grounded in over 25 years of bipartisan Congressional and taxpayer support, combined with the experience and determination of our implementing partners. Together, we have worked with host governments, as well as communities at the local level, to create a resilient program that has evolved and adapted along with the threat from landmines, unexploded ordnance, small arms and light weapons, and related munitions. The American taxpayer can be proud of the assistance rendered to this part of the world.