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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance: A Resource Book
Rae McGrath

London: Pluto Press, 2000
288pp. Index. Hb.: 55.00; ISBN 0-7453-1264-0 Pb.: 17.99; ISBN 0-7453-1259-4

The signing and ratification of the Ottawa Treaty banning the production, stockpiling and deployment of anti-personnel mines by many countries (but not e.g. the USA) may give the impression that landmines as a major threat to people and an obstacle to reconstruction, reconciliation and economic recovery are now under control. That is not entirely correct. The possibility to significantly reduce the threat of the millions of mines still in the soil of many places in the world exists. But it will take an unnecessarily long time to realise that possibility, if humanitarian mine-action programmes continue to be designed and funded the way they are today. This book explains why we are not doing very well now, and how we can become far more cost-effective. It also, rightfully so, draws attention to the neglected problem of unexploded ordnance or UXOs.

The subtitle 'A resource book' is appropriate. Its chapters provide comprehensive coverage of all topics that those working in mine-affected areas and involved in mine action programmes need to know: what mines are and what military thinking inspired their growing deployment; what impact they have on individuals, communities and countries; the different levels of surveying a mine problem and planning mine-action in accordance; the techniques and practical attention points when clearing mines and UXOs; the question of how to design effective national demining programmes and give them a sustainable management structure; and the imperative to work much more effectively with communities living in mine- and UXO-infested areas, beyond, often inappropriately designed, mine awareness programmes. The book concludes with a list of contacts and selected readings.

Busy practitioners, policy-makers and staff in donor aid administrations making funding decisions around mine-action programmes tend not to read books, because they have no time. That argument should not be used here. First of all, the book reads very easily. It is well structured, very well written, and full of insights yet never hard to absorb. This is because it represents a publisher's dream: an author with vast practical knowledge, who has analytically thought through his experience, who writes very well and argues sharply and convincingly. A second reason is that it regularly made me laugh - and occasionally cringe with pain. The pain comes when reading the few stories of people victimised by mines, which bring the reality starkly home to the remote reader. The laughter is provoked by McGrath's readiness to dispense with diplomatic niceties and cut through all the rhetoric that covers up a fair amount of ignorance, incompetence and ineffectiveness among those funding, organising and implementing humanitarian mine action programmes. Admittedly, the 'targets' of McGrath's 'confrontational honesty' (p. 171), donors, UN organisations, occasional NGO personnel, arms manufacturers, commercial demining companies, might therefore cringe where it makes me laugh (a natural reaction in response to the enriching oxygen that a "let's call a cat a cat" style releases). It would be shortsighted however therefore to retrench into a defensive position and put this book aside. Because we cannot laugh over the reality that mine-victims have to live with. And that is McGrath's starting point and end point for what is a principled combat, inspired by a deeply felt sense of humanity and justice.

The key message of the books is that many actors have jumped on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines bandwagon and that the mine-action sector has become a bit of a cult industry - with the concomitant amount of wastage and empty gestures. McGrath wants to put the 'development engineering' aspect of mine action back where it belongs: at the centre of any mine-action programme. This will require a renewed emphasis on proper surveying to inform operational planning, on risk reduction not just through clearance but also through marking, the indigenisation and integration of mine awareness with other mine-action activities, the extension of practical emergency aid training to communities, learning from different country-programme experiences and the reduction of political interference in mine action programmes. These points are elaborated through chapters which are written almost as a reference manual, and underpinned by convincing examples and arguments. Reading this book for many will not be optional but a professional obligation.

Koenraad Van Brabant, Overseas Development Institute

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