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Armed Non-State Actors: The Main Users of the “Poor Man’s Weapon”

Updated Tuesday, 17-Sep-2013 16:26:49 EDT

This report, which builds on an initial analysis by Geneva Call published in 2004,1 provides a comprehensive mapping of the use, acquisition, production, transfer and stockpiling of landmines by armed non-state actors through a presentation of individual group profiles and a global analysis. The report records global occurrences of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mine planting by NSAs during 2003–2005, whether activated by victims, by vehicles or at a distance using command detonation.

Non-state actors often have more limited military resources than the states against which they fight and, therefore, use landmines, “the poor man’s weapon,” more frequently. As a consequence, the number of NSAs using landmines significantly exceeds the number of states deploying this weapon.

Around 60 NSAs have emplaced landmines in 24 countries across five geographic regions: sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East/North Africa.2 In addition to these NSAs, armed groups, which are difficult to identify as belonging to a certain category of ideology or organizational form, have also made frequent use of landmines in a few other countries. Two-thirds of these groups have deployed some type of victim-activated devices. These devices were both factory-made and handmade, indicating NSA involvement in both the transfer and the production of mines.

Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines,2 confirmed earlier findings of important regional disparities, not the least of which was the comparatively higher concentration of mine use by NSAs in Asia, especially of improvised explosive devices (aka handmade mines).3 The second most affected region is Africa.

A greater proportion of NSA mine use occurs in Ottawa Convention4 non-signatory countries: 60 percent of the NSAs identified as mine users operate in these countries.2 Given that 151 of the world’s approximately 200 states have adhered to this international agreement, it appears that non-signatories are more exposed to NSA mine use than are States Parties. This is not to say, however, that being a party to the Ottawa Convention protects a country from NSA mine deployment. Indeed, two very frequent mine users, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, operate in Colombia, a State Party.

Frequency of Mine Use

There is currently a trend in many conflicts towards increased use of command-detonated mines.

Keeping in mind the differences in mine use among NSAs is crucial in choosing the most appropriate strategy for engaging them in a mine ban. It is clear there are significant disparities between NSAs, not only in terms of the reasons that motivate their mine use and the types of mines they choose to employ, but also in respect to the frequency of use.5 For some NSAs, landmines constitute one of their weapons of choice. Examples of such groups include FARC and ELN in Colombia, several Burmese and Kashmiri groups, and the Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist. Other groups deploy mines when they have access to, or a particular “need” for, mines. Instances of this are the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and the Rahanwein Resistance Army in Somalia. Some groups, such as the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People–National Liberation Forces in Burundi and the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, are sporadic users.

Logic Behind NSA Mine Use

Although deemed by many as lacking decisive military utility and despite their disastrous humanitarian consequences, landmines clearly serve different purposes for each NSA that employs them.1 Knowing why and how NSAs use these weapons could contribute to developing a successful strategy for engaging these groups in the landmine ban. Four reasons for mine use were identified as the purpose of the report:

  1. Offensive
  2. Defensive
  3. Economic gain
  4. So-called “nuisance mining”

Many NSAs use landmines in an offensive manner; for example, the CPN-M in Nepal, the Kurdistan People’s Congress/Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan (Kongra-Gel/PKK) in Turkey, the Communist Party of India–Maoist in India, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, offensive use is probably significantly over-reported since it is more visible.

NSAs often confirm not only offensive but also defensive mine uses. Indeed, according to a majority of NSAs, landmines are mainly utilized for defensive purposes. The Burmese Rohingya Solidarity Organization has admitted to using mines to defend its camps and bases as well as to protect its members from robbery or from the Bangladeshi Army. The Chin National Front (Burma/Myanmar) has also admitted to using mines for self-defense, apparently to protect its camps.

Landmine use for economic purposes is not frequently reported, although this is probably due to underreporting rather than the insignificance of this kind of use. For example, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia allegedly utilizes landmines for the protection of coca plantations, whereas the Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance in Senegal is thought to plant landmines to hinder the local population from benefiting from economically profitable land.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army combatant in South Sudan.
© Geneva Call, 2003

As for nuisance mining, the most cited example is probably that of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Nuisance mining is the use of mines that serve no direct military or economic purpose. This includes using mines to interfere with strategic infrastructure, such as communications and railways, or to affect civilians. Other examples are groups in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. FARC allegedly placed mines at the entrances of a town and in houses and vehicles before the army took over the area.3


NSAs frequently use landmines offensively, targeting state security forces or other individuals linked to the state. In many cases, NSAs are present at the time and place of the landmine attacks. This suggests that for these NSAs, command-detonated landmines may be an alternative, and hence, a total ban on AP mines may be possible.

There is currently a trend in many conflicts towards increased use of command-detonated mines. However, although command-detonation is clearly preferable from a humanitarian point of view to victim and vehicle activation, this does not constitute a guarantee that civilians and humanitarian actors will not be victimized, as became evident in the tragic incident in Nepal’s Chitwan district in June 2005.6

Widespread Production and Use of IEDs

Around 40 groups globally produced and used improvised explosive devices between 2003 and 2005.2 This indicates that a strategy that solely targets access to factory-made landmines and explosives is not sufficient. Easy access to materials necessary to manufacture IEDs, as well as knowledge and technology transfers among NSAs, has undoubtedly contributed to spreading the landmine problem. Nevertheless, IEDs do not always constitute indiscriminate weapons as this depends on how they are put to use.

Sources of Factory-made Mines

Factory-made landmines are accessible to NSAs through at least three sources:

  1. Minefields or stocks
  2. Certain state sponsors
  3. Other NSAs or the black market

One of the main sources of factory-made landmines for NSAs is the very state against which they are fighting. Incidents of NSAs managing to loot or capture landmines from the state are reported regularly. Such has repeatedly been the case in the Philippines and Burma/Myanmar. NSAs have also reported that soldiers from state armies have offered to sell them landmines. Furthermore, foreign state sponsors are thought to supply NSAs with factory-made mines.

Large areas of the world are not under the effective control of any state, a fact facilitating the trafficking of arms and IED-making material among NSAs. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in some post-conflict situations there is no need for NSAs or individuals to look for sources of mines since weapons, including mines, are plentiful and easily available, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

Different NSAs have allegedly transferred to each other not only arms and explosives but also the knowledge and technology on how to manufacture landmines, as in Burma/Myanmar, India and the Philippines. There are also allegations that some transfers are of a more permanent character and include the joint running of camps. Indeed, it has been asserted on more than one occasion that there have been intense contacts between the Nepalese CPN-M and some Indian Maoists (CPI–M), including joint training.7

Impact of NSA Mine Use

The impact of NSA mine use is in many respects similar to the impact of state mine use. However, it appears that NSA mines are more widely dispersed than state mines and non-state actors are usually less prone to mark or map their mines.

The humanitarian impact of NSA mine use is difficult to measure, since it takes place in a conflict situation, in areas where little or no mine action is taking place and where civilians may fear reporting mine incidents.

The humanitarian impact of NSA mine use is difficult to measure, since it takes place in a conflict situation, in areas where little or no mine action is taking place and where civilians may fear reporting mine incidents. In addition, the impact of NSA mine use is difficult to distinguish from that of the conflict itself until the conflict has ended and information becomes available through mine-action efforts. The impact of former mine use by NSAs (anti-personnel and anti-vehicle) can be seen in Angola, Southern Sudan and Sri Lanka.

NSAs all over the world are victimized by their own mines, as well as those deployed by governments, paramilitaries and other NSAs. The fact that their own combatants are also victimized could be used in negotiations for a mine ban with NSAs. Access to victim assistance for combatants who have suffered mine incidents could also be used as a carrot in negotiations.

Effects of AV Mine Use

Some 30 NSAs used AV mines between 2003 and 2005.2 As is shown in numerous studies, AV mines triggered by vehicles are also indiscriminate weapons. However, since NSAs in many conflicts largely depend on these weapons, it appears unlikely that many of them would agree to a total ban on AV mines. Nevertheless, some NSAs have expressed an interest in also banning these weapons.

Need for Prioritization

When engaging NSAs, priorities must be set as to when and where to allocate scarce resources: If humanitarian actors target a group that is a frequent user and manage to involve it in the mine ban, the benefits for the population are greater; yet a sporadic user or non-user may be more open to renouncing the use of mines since mines are not a crucial part of its military strategy.

The Global Report, by explaining specific characteristics of the NSAs and their mine use, intends to provide a background tool for humanitarian actors to strategize regarding which non-state actors to target and what the appropriate approaches might be. For instance, one way of conducting advocacy is through direct contact with a group’s leadership. Another way is by disseminating mine-ban information within civil society in order to create a bottom-up pressure on the group. In addition, understanding regional patterns is essential, since these may have important consequences for the engagement and implementation of strategies for a mine ban. This may be particularly true in cases where regional dynamics appear to fuel the landmine problem or provide possibilities for its solution.

NSA Involvement in Mine Action

Considering the disastrous effects of landmine use, there is a requirement for national and international agencies to undertake mine action in areas where NSAs operate and/or are in control, as encouraged in Action 46 of the Nairobi Action Plan.8 Given the benefits of mine action to affected populations, it is indispensable for the concerned governments to allow such actions.

Indeed, NSAs are contributing to mine action in different areas around the world, notably in Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iraqi Kurdistan. In order to map the benefits and challenges related to the involvement of non-state actors in humanitarian demining and to encourage other NSAs to ban anti-personnel mines and get involved in mine action, there is a need to further investigate current mine-action efforts undertaken by these actors in conflict and post-conflict situations. Geneva Call is currently working on such a report on NSA mine action. In fact, the Global Report is part of a bigger project that studies the negative and positive implications of NSAs in the landmine problem. This project grew out of the realization that only by understanding NSA- and region-specific dynamics is it possible to address the current and future landmine problem as it relates to NSAs.


The Global Report clearly demonstrates a need to discuss the mine issue with non-state actors. Many NSAs (as well as states) lack the long-term perspective of the consequences of mine use, and it is therefore crucial for the international community to find channels of communication with NSAs on the AP mine issue. Parties to conflict often use accusations of AP mine use to discredit the other party because of the stigmatization of such arms following the Ottawa process, but also because of the natural “perception of landmines as an illegitimate type of weapon.”9 NSAs, as well as states, are thus reluctant to admit they are using a victim-activated weapon. This suggests an inclusive approach—involving advocacy based on accurate information—could be the key to success for spreading a mine ban among NSAs.

This article is drawn from a report produced by Geneva Call, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines,2 which was published in November 2005. The report can be downloaded from Geneva Call’s Web site at Hard copies can be obtained by writing to


Anki Sjöberg received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Södertörns högskola in Stockholm. She is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland. Sjöberg has authored The Involvement of Armed Non-State Actors in the Landmine Problem: A Call for Action and coordinated Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and Their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines.


  1. Sjöberg, Anki. The Involvement of Armed Non-State Actors in the Landmine Problem: A Call for Action. Executive Summary. Geneva Call (2004).
  2. Geneva Call (2005). Global Report: Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines. Text available online at Accessed March 17, 2006. Hard copies can be obtained by contacting The report is part of a project supported by the Geneva International Academic Network, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the government of Italy, and the continued support of Switzerland. Institutions contributing to the report are the Program for the Study of International Organization(s), the United Nations Mine Action Service, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. Tables containing landmine information on armed non-state actors were created based on media reports, the Landmine Monitor, interviews, field trips, emails from non-state actors, etc.
  3. “Mine use” here is referring to the global occurrences of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mine emplacement by NSAs, whether activated by victims, vehicles or at a distance by command-detonation. This includes factory-made mines as well as booby-traps and IEDs that act in the same way as mines.
  4. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 Sept. 1997; Accessed 26 April 2006. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 Dec. 1997, and thus is commonly known as the Ottawa Convention.
  5. The frequency of mine use is related to the number of reported incidents (i.e., mine blasts) allegedly caused by an NSA. However, an NSA could also emplace many mines but have few reported incidents attributed to it. Low reporting of incidents could mean that there are actually not many incidents, due to mined areas being scarcely populated, the population being afraid to go into the area, the population being warned about where mines are, etc. However, it could also mean that incidents that occur are not reported. The lack of reporting could be due to a scarcity of institutions or organizations that gather such information or due to the fear of reprisal if the incident is reported.
  6. In Madi, Chitwan, a command-detonated landmine was triggered by the CPN–M under a crowded passenger bus, killing 38 people (35 of whom were civilians) and wounding over 70 (see endnote 1).
  7. The contact between the CPN–M and the CPI-M appears to have consisted in information-sharing about arms training, IED production and guerrilla-warfare techniques (see endnote 2).
  8. Action 46 of the Nairobi Action Plan states that States Parties in a position to do so will “continue to support, as appropriate, mine action to assist affected populations in areas under the control of armed non-state actors, particularly in areas under the control of actors which have agreed to abide by the Convention’s norms.” Text available online at Accessed March 27, 2006.
  9. Harpviken, Kristian Berg and Bernt A Skåra. "Humanitarian Mine Action and Peace Building: Exploring the Relationship." Third World Quarterly 24.5 (2003): p. 813.

Contact Information

Anki Sjöberg
Research Coordinator
Geneva Call
P.O. Box 334
1211 Geneva 4 / Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 879 1050
Fax: +41 22 879 1051
Web site: