International Support to Mine Action in Colombia: Mitigating Impact and Protecting Rights

by Charles Downs [ Downs Consulting ]

Ending the decades-long violence in Colombia is the only way to eliminate all landmines from the country. Until that time, there is a need to mitigate their impact, minimize the number of new victims and assure better assistance to survivors.

A community in Nariño, a province in southern Colombia took part in a meeting against mines in its territory. Nariño has mines in 35 of its 63 municipalities.
Photo courtesy of Borja Paladini

Ongoing internal armed conflict1 is the determining factor in the landmine problem in Colombia. It is not simply one more element to take into consideration; it completely alters the panorama. Mines are a product of the conflict. As long as they are active instruments in the dispute between forces, with each mine having an interested owner, mines will be a continuing source of risk for the population. As a result, people are confined, displaced and denied access to the necessities of daily life. The impact of mines never goes away for the victims, not for their families and their communities.

Resolving the conflict, is the only way to eliminate all mines from the national territory, and it is the only way to enable all Colombians to live without the trauma, loss of life, and social and economic blockages produced by landmines.

All Colombians have the right to live without the risk of finding a mine in their path. They have the right to cultivate their fertile lands, many of which have been abandoned due to fear. Until the conflict is resolved, however, the impact of mines must be reduced, better assistance must be provided to all current survivors and the number of new victims must be minimized.

Colombia is one of the few countries in the Americas where anti-personnel landmines are in active use.2 Landmine victims have been recorded in Colombia since 1990, but the number rose sharply beginning in 2001. Reasons for the increase may include the heightened use of landmines by guerrilla groups, improvement of reporting measurement mechanisms and the increased movement of the population.2 Today the problem affects people living in 31 of the 32 Colombian departments3 and 60 percent of municipalities, with particular presence in rural communities.4

Colombia is among the countries with the greatest number of new victims. According to the 2007 Landmine Monitor Report, Colombia had 1,106 mine victims in 2006, which is greater than three victims per day. That same year, two-thirds of the victims were from the Army and police, which is the highest proportion anywhere in the world. The civilian victims alone (314, nearly one each day) were enough to place Colombia among the three countries with the most new mine victims.5 Though there was a decrease in victims the following year, Colombia continued to have more new victims than any other country. In 2007, there were 895 victims; 193 were killed and 702 were injured.2

The presence of landmines in the different regions of the country changes according to the evolution of the armed conflict, as demonstrated by comparing the locations of civilian victims over the period 1990–2006 with those recorded in 2007. During this period, the four departments6 with the greatest number of civilian victims were Antioquia, Meta, Bolívar and Caquetá. Antioquia had more than the other three combined. In 2007, the four departments with the highest number of casualties were Nariño, Antioquia, Guaviare and Arauca. Nariño had more than the other three combined, reflecting the intensification of armed conflict there.2

Illegal groups in Colombia are still using mines in the armed conflict. In this image, a man from the Military Forces is examining one mine that was discover in a road in a rural area.
Photo courtesy of UNDP Colombia

What Can Be Done?

Considering the experiences of similarly contaminated countries, there are three lines of action that can be taken by various levels of government and civil society with the support of international organizations, even during a period of armed conflict. These measures include:

1. Reduce risk
2. Provide comprehensive support to victims
3. Develop the capacity to coordinate and manage a multifaceted response to the landmine problem

Reduce risk. People have a need and a right to know how to protect themselves from danger, and the public sector has an obligation to inform them. There are many mine-risk education programs that have been developed around the world through mass media, schools, churches and communities. While all Colombians need basic mine awareness, those in places where the problem is more intense need more complete information from trusted channels.

Support to victims. The Colombian Constitution and laws—such as Law 1145 (2007), which organizes the National Disability System, and Law 418 (1997) which provides for support to victims of the conflict—include the basic principles to promote, protect and guarantee these rights and responsibilities. Colombian laws provide a clearer framework for victim’s rights than do those of many other countries. Nonetheless, there is a need to ensure the rights are applied without arbitrary limitations or bureaucratic delays, and that they include psychosocial support and reintegration into work.

According to a 2007 Handicap International analysis of the network of victim assistance services in three departments, the present system is a good beginning for emergency and continuing medical treatment and physical rehabilitation. However, HI identified several limitations: insufficient resources, limited geographic coverage, absence of economic support to family members, and very minimal psychosocial and labor support.

Capacity building. There is a need for a central office with a global perspective on the problem to coordinate the development of a national strategy and program of action. To be as effective as possible, the central office needs complete, reliable and verified information, and should be willing to share that information and coordinate action with the many public-sector and civil-society actors. There is a need for a national mine-action strategy to be developed in consensus with the relevant actors. There is also a need for minimum standards for all assistance measures, as well as a monitoring and quality-control mechanism. In Colombia, this responsibility falls to the Programa Presidencial para la Accion Integral contra las Minas Antiersonal, which is currently working to develop the necessary capacity, institutional structure and coordination mechanism required to meet these challenges.

Since landmines are a national problem that affects specific territories far removed from urban centers, the practical efforts of the national strategy must be prioritized and coordinated at the regional and local levels. The Departmental Mines Committee is an appropriate mechanism for this task, as it includes stakeholders from the public sector and civil society.

Current Responses

There are many civil-society, public and private institutions that carry out MRE in Colombia. Their important efforts are nonetheless insufficient; furthermore, their efficacy is unknown, given the lack of mechanisms to measure and evaluate results. Greater attention to monitoring results is essential to ensuring improved impact.

There are also several public, private and civil-society actors responding to needs of mine victims, and they are aware that emergency medical response, physical rehabilitation, psycho-social assistance and labor reintegration are needs not just of mine victims but of persons with disabilities in general. There are very interesting pilot programs underway, including accommodation for accompanying family members during treatment and rehabilitation, psychosocial support for reintegration, vocational training and micro-credit programs. Nonetheless, there is a need for more comprehensive policy framework and programs to ensure the desired reach.

The armed forces in Colombia are the only personnel currently authorized to conduct mine clearance, and some members have received training from the Organization of American States and countries such as Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Experience of other countries has shown that it is useful to have several actors conduct demining because it attracts more funds and enables simultaneous responses to a wide range of problems. In many post-conflict situations, demining has provided an employment option for demobilized ex-combatants. The actors may include national and international nongovernmental organizations, as well as specialized private firms, all of which work within a framework of national standards and quality control.

Several donors have provided financial or technical support to mine action in Colombia, including the European Community, the OAS, the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. It is important to maintain these countries' interest in the topic, which will likely increase with a clear public policy and effective programs demonstrating good use of funds that achieve practical results.

Ottawa Commitments

The Ottawa Convention5 includes commitments to eliminate mines from the national territory, to destroy stockpiles (completed by Colombia in 2004)4 and to assist victims, among other requirements. At the end of 2007, 155 countries had signed the Convention, including Colombia in 2000. Colombia’s requirements included destroying all stockpiled mines by March 2005, clearing all minefields within 10 years, and providing assistance centers for mine victims.7

Non-state actors in some countries with internal conflicts have responded to the efforts of Geneva Call, a humanitarian organization seeking commitments from NSAs to avoid the use of landmines. Currently, 39 NSAs have pledged not only to abstain from using landmines, but also to help remove them from countries and territories including Burundi, Kurdistan, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey and Western Sahara.8

Solving the Problem

Colombia’s internal armed conflict must be addressed and put to an end in order to solve its landmine problem. The landmine problem is widespread, affecting 31 out of the 32 departments throughout Colombia, particularly in rural areas. Efforts should be made to inform all Colombians about their rights regarding landmines. It is important to keep international donors aware of Colombia’s ongoing landmine problem so that they continue to provide aid.

As long as mines continue to be used, the response will always be insufficient, which is why the only guaranteed way to end the landmine problem in Colombia is to resolve the conflict. In the meantime, there is a need to continue to extend the reach and quality of programs, and to increase the effectiveness and impact of the responsible institutions. This will benefit all Colombians and create a stronger ability to respond in the future.

This article was originally published in June 2008 in Colombia as “Contra las minas y por los derechos de las victimas” in Hechos del Callejon, Number 36;


Charles Downs has worked in mine action since 1999, when he became the Chief of the Mine Action Unit of the United Nations Office for Project Services, a position he held until 2004. Recent consulting assignments include lead investigator for the Survey Action Center project to promote use of landmine information by development organizations; responsible for review of current practice in Technical Survey and land release for Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining; advisor to the United Nations Development Programme–Colombia in designing its mine-action strategy; and Professor of International Project Management at New York University’s Wagner School.


  1. See for example Human Rights Watch, The “Sixth” Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia. Sept. 2001. Accessed 6 February 2009.
  2. "Colombia.” Landmine Monitor Report 2008. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Accessed 23 July 2009.
  3. Departments are subdivided portions of a country much like a state, province, or county. Set up by the country's government, they are sometimes overseen by semiautonomous governing bodies.
  4. “Colombia.” Landmine Monitor Report 2004. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
    Accessed 23 July 2009.
  5. “Colombia.” Landmine Monitor Report 2007. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Accessed 23 July 2009.
  6. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. Accessed 6 February 2009.
  7. Since the publication of the report, a 35th group has signed the Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action. A full list of signatories is available at  Accessed 1 December 2008.
  8. While only governments can sign the Ottawa Convention, non-state actors can sign the Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action through an organization called Geneva Call. Geneva Call engages NSAs to respect and adhere to humanitarian norms, starting with the anti-personnel mine ban. Accessed 6 February 2009.

Further Reading

  1. Downs, Charles. “Increasing the Impact of Mine-action Surveys.” Journal of Mine Action. 10.2 (2006). Accessed 18 February 2009.
  2. Downs, Charles. “UNDP Management Training Programme for National Mine Action Managers.” Journal of Mine Action. 11.2 (2007). Accessed 18 February 2009.

Contact Information

Charles Downs
Principal, Downs Consulting
Adjunct Professor
NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
Brooklyn, NY 10012-9604 / USA
Tel: 1+ 646 763 2410