Global Demining Initiative for Colombia

By Major General Michael D. Rothstein, United States Air Force, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Plans, Programs, and Operations with the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

A Colombian demining technician points to a landmine she discovered buried along a path. [Photo courtesy of The HALO Trust]

As Colombia closes in on an historic peace accord, one of the many challenges ahead will be taking action against one of the conflict’s deadliest legacies: landmines and unexploded munitions that litter the Andean nation, and have killed or injured more than 11,000 Colombians over the past 25 years.

A true international effort will be necessary to secure a lasting peace and tackle this serious humanitarian challenge. On February 4, President Obama announced the new Global Demining Initiative for Colombia, co-led by the United States and Norway, to dramatically expand U.S. support for Colombia’s demining efforts and inspire additional support from other international donors.

Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $43 million in the clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance in Colombia. Under this new initiative, we are preparing to do much more and will invest an additional $33 million over the next three years toward humanitarian mine action and preventing injuries through community outreach. In addition, we’ll provide support to Colombia’s mine action authority, DAICMA.

Decades of conflict between the Colombian armed forces and various illegal armed groups, such as the FARC, have left much of the country contaminated by landmines and unexploded munitions. With 31 of its 32 departments thought to be contaminated by landmines, Colombia is one of the most landmine-affected countries in the world. A systematic survey of landmine contamination has not yet occurred and survey efforts are further complicated by possible continued mine-laying by paramilitary and criminal organizations other than the FARC that are not involved in the peace process.

The author (right) discusses next steps in Colombia demining with Brigadier General Rafael Alfredo Colón, Director of the Colombian demining organization, DAICMA. [U.S. Department of State photo]

In January, I traveled to Colombia to meet with key stakeholders in Colombia mine action, including several Colombian ministries, non-governmental organizations, and our Norwegian partners. I was struck not only by the physical challenges to demining in Colombia — the rugged roads, steep cliffs, rocky terrain, and dense vegetation — but also the grit and determination of the men and women of Colombia undertaking this difficult and dangerous work. Despite the many challenges they face, these deminers are intensely proud of their efforts to eliminate the threat that landmines pose to their country.

Through the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia, the United States and Norway aim to rally the international community to support Colombia’s demining efforts. Even those who cannot contribute financially often have other resources to offer, such as specialized demining expertise, which will expedite efforts to eradicate landmine contamination. Colombia’s neighbors, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, have committed to the initiative, as have many of Colombia’s other international partners: Canada, the European Union, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Colombian demining trainees take part in a training exercise. [Photo courtesy of The HALO Trust]

In May, experts from each of the participating countries plan to meet in Colombia to familiarize themselves with Colombia’s current demining efforts and needs, conduct site visits, and discuss national priorities for clearance. This fall, the United States, Norway, and Colombia plan to lead a Ministerial-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly to discuss additional steps.

The United States is the world’s leading provider of technical and financial assistance for the clearance of explosive remnants of war, and looks forward to strengthening our decades of partnership with Colombia. For more than two decades, the United States has invested more than $2.5 billion in aid to more than 90 countries to help alleviate the threat of unexploded ordnance, landmines, conventional weapons, and munitions. As Secretary Kerry noted, Colombians now have an historic opportunity to embrace a future free from conflict and violence. And as we help them seize the enormous promise of their peace accords, we look forward to working with our partners to set the stage for recovery and development and ensuring Colombia’s post-conflict communities are safe from landmines and the explosive remnants of war.

This story also appears on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.