ICRC Weapons-contamination Activities in Colombia

by Andy Wheatley [ International Committee of the Red Cross ]

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working alongside the Colombian Red Cross to ease Colombia’s weapons-contamination problem, made more difficult by ongoing conflict. By combining preventive measures, victim assistance, rehabilitation programs and economic aid, the ICRC has strengthened Colombian organizations, while educating the public and assisting those negatively affected by explosive remnants of war. The efforts of the ICRC have significantly helped Colombia where many other international organizations had found it difficult to assist because of the current political situation.

When describing the problem and its response, the ICRC refers to weapons-contamination activities rather than mine action. Institutionally, it feels this terminology more accurately reflects the true nature of the problem in which explosive remnants of war are often as problematic and prevalent as landmines.

The raison d’être of ICRC fieldwork is to provide protection and assistance to the civilian population affected by the internal armed conflict in Colombia. The ICRC seeks to reduce the impact of weapons contamination where the organization has a comparative advantage in terms of access or capability in a given situation. Due to the severe impact of weapons contamination in Colombia, the ICRC substantially expanded its focus on weapons-contamination issues in 2007. It seeks to provide a multidisciplinary response to the needs of affected communities and victims in terms of data gathering, victim assistance, and preventive activities. The focus of the ICRC's work is a mixture of direct-action intervention, support to the Colombian Red Cross weapons-contamination activities, and support and lobbying of government institutions. This article will summarize key aspects of the weapons-contamination situation in Colombia, and outline the ICRC and CRC movement response.

The Weapons-contamination Context

Colombia is substantially affected by the ongoing use of improvised explosive devices, primarily victim-activated, by parties to the conflict. In such a context, effective and widespread humanitarian mine clearance is difficult, if not impossible. While the problem is widespread, analysis of the official casualty figures shows that in 2006 and 2007 more than 60 percent (340) of known civilian mine casualties and 50 percent (813) of military casualties took place in just 40 of the 1,106 municipal areas in Colombia, usually rural and remote areas.1 However, the problem of weapons contamination is extremely dynamic, and the focus of the problem has changed and continues to change substantially in recent years. Areas highly affected three to four years ago may no longer be similarly affected today.

There are relatively few international and national organizations undertaking weapon-contamination activities in Colombia, and no international humanitarian mine-clearance agencies. Although donor interest has grown in recent years, implementation capacity remains relatively limited. Additionally, while the capacity of the Colombian government to manage the subject has improved substantially, capacity to coordinate activities continues to be limited.

A participant practices first aid skills in a course taught by Colombian Red Cross volunteers.
All photos courtesy of ICRC Colombia

The fact that the country remains in conflict has a number of implications. Access by government services, nongovernmental and international organization is often extremely limited in the most conflict-affected parts of the country. This means that events often go unreported; civilian access to medical and other services is restricted; and the government, international community and civil-society organizations have limited capacity to respond. The result is often a mismatch between resources, access and need. Thus, while the Colombian state has the capacity to effectively manage and deliver health, education and other services, this capacity varies over time and location. With many pressing concerns, an effective response to the needs of conflict victims (be they displaced, mine or ERW casualties, or otherwise affected) often requires direct assistance from external organizations such as the ICRC.

Given this context, the ICRC weapon-contamination activities have been designed to take into account the need for an integrated approach to the complex and often poorly understood needs of weapons-contamination victims and their families, rather than the series of fragmented services currently available. While the ICRC provides direct assistance where necessary, a major focus of its activities is on lobbying and mobilization of other actors, including the Colombian government, to manage the problem.

ICRC response. The ICRC response to the weapons-contamination threat is a mixture of preventive activities—risk reduction, risk education and dissemination of information regarding victims’ rights—and victim assistance, which consists of direct medical support and assistance, an extensive physical rehabilitation program, and a small socioeconomic reintegration program. Additionally, ICRC undertakes extensive data-gathering activities to inform and direct activities.

Data gathering. The ICRC believes that there is substantial underreporting of civilian victims of weapons contamination due to a variety of factors linked to geography, logistics, finances and other reasons.

Since 2007, the ICRC has developed a data-gathering capacity in an attempt to better understand the true level of casualties. The perception of the ICRC’s neutrality and independence, access to areas of conflict, and known capacity to assist victims combine to allow the ICRC to develop effectively an information-gathering tool for mobilization, persuasion and the lobbying of government bodies. This data helps to inform and target the ICRC weapons-contamination programming. This is a relatively “light” activity, since data collection is combined with other ongoing programming, rather than requiring specialized teams. Once collected, information on the date, location, gender and type of wound is shared with the Programa Presidencial para Accion Integral contra las Minas Antipersonal (Presidential Program for Comprehensive Action Against Antipersonnel Mines) and entered in its International Management System for Mine Action database.

In 2007, the ICRC undertook a knowledge, attitude and practice survey in three departments2 (Antioquia, Meta and Tolima) to determine how mines and ERW impact the lives of the civilian population and how these items are viewed and treated by the population. This document has been shared with mine-action organizations, the government and the diplomatic community, and acts as a baseline for the ICRC's activities. The ICRC has been approached for assistance from other mine-action organizations to help them develop similar initiatives in other areas.

Prevention Activities

Risk reduction. The ICRC also undertakes risk-reduction activities for weapons-affected communities. These involve the provision of specific alternatives to weapons-contaminated communities based on a clear understanding of how weapons contamination affects them. This is usually in the form of rehabilitation, water or economic security activities, or mobilization and persuasion activities undertaken by field staff, interventions aimed at limiting the direct humanitarian impact of mine use on the civilian population living in mined areas, or other interventions to mitigate the impact of weapons contamination on them.

For example, in one village, the ICRC was asked to provide an alternative water source, since the existing system was damaged and the community did not dare go to the spring due to the presence of mines. While the water team could have provided an alternative water source, the situation was resolved by the ICRC approaching the armed group present in that area, discussing the specific humanitarian impact of mines on that community, and highlighting its responsibility to facilitate access. The armed group removed the mines, and the community was informed they were free to access the area and repair the water source. Due to lack of access to the rural areas of the most mine-affected municipalities, no other organization has the capacity to undertake such activities or raise this issue with the group involved. In this example, a protection strategy, highlighting the humanitarian consequences of mine use, resolved a potentially serious problem. The ICRC, however, does not have this level of access and contact with armed groups in all locations of the country.

As part of a risk-reduction program, the ICRC built this school sanitation block to avoid the need for children to use nearby woods suspected of being mined.
All photos courtesy of ICRC Colombia

Risk education and VA information. The ICRC also provides information on weapons-contamination risk education and disseminates information from the state regarding victims’ rights to health and rehabilitation assistance. The provision of generic risk education is aimed at reducing risk of injury by promoting changes in behavior. A limited number of organizations are providing risk education; however, few of them have access to the most affected rural areas and are required to undertake their activities in municipal capitals, and not in the most affected communities. While these activities are valid and useful, it is obviously important to work with those most affected, usually found in more rural areas.

In Colombia, the Colombian Red Cross is a major provider of risk education, with ongoing programs in 10 departments, funded and assisted by the ICRC. In 2007, the ICRC enhanced the logistical capacity of the CRC through the donation of six vehicles for use in risk-education programming. Effective activities by the CRC, however, rely on its having security and guaranteed access for its personnel to the areas in which it works. While the ICRC seeks to negotiate and facilitate the Colombian Red Cross access to affected areas, the ICRC has developed a capacity to undertake emergency risk education in areas where this is not possible, or where the CRC capacity does not exist. In such cases, the strategy is for the ICRC to undertake activities in the short term, while over time seeking to build trust and obtain access for the CRC activities in the zone in the longer term (if necessary).

Victim-assistance Activities

Under Colombian law, all mine/ERW victims have the right to assistance. A mismatch ottenxists between victims’ rights to services and their ability to access them. However, conflict victims have the right to a comprehensive list of services, such as emergency and rehabilitative medical care, physical rehabilitation, financial compensation and socioeconomic reintegration. Due to various reasons, however, including a lack of knowledge of their rights, slow and bureaucratic procedures, and a lack of knowledge among key service providers of their role and responsibility toward conflict victims, these rights and services are rarely realized by the civilian population. Victim-assistance activities, through health and physical-rehabilitation assistance activities, are the largest and most visible aspect of the ICRC weapons-contamination programming.

A major focus of the ICRC and CRC involves training and orientation of community leaders and key governmental entities in the most mine-affected areas of the country on the rights of victims and the facilitating role these leaders and governmental agencies should play. Between January and September 2008, ICRC undertook training sessions in approximately 30 weapons-contaminated municipalities.

Additionally, ICRC and CRC undertake refresher training of health promoters and auxiliary nurses, and provide community members in affected areas with first-aid training. Medical staff in clinics and hospitals in trauma care are also trained by the ICRC on the management of war-wounded victims. In 2007, the ICRC provided training to over 400 health staff from 78 health posts and 57 hospitals, while organizing, in the first nine months of 2008, 12 courses for 330 participants coming from 96 health structures.

The ICRC also pays transportation costs and living expenses for conflict victims and one family member during medical and rehabilitation care. In 2007, the ICRC economically assisted 253 victims of mines or ERW, and in 2008 this figure increased to 330. The ICRC maintains an emergency fund to ensure that those who fall outside of the government regulatory framework for assistance receive emergency treatment. The ICRC has assisted 40 percent of all civilian victims injured between 2002 and the end of 2008.

The ICRC is the largest provider of rehabilitation assistance in Colombia. While most victims receive access to some form of emergency health care, a much smaller percentage receives access to physical rehabilitation services. With a view toward maximizing both access and sustainability, the ICRC has embarked on a substantial program of support to strengthen five existing rehabilitation centers throughout the country with management support, training, and the provision of materials and equipment.

During 2007 and 2008, the ICRC directly assisted over 200 mine victims, with plans for assisting over 300 in 2009. This program is designed with an exit strategy from the start—developing the capacity of existing institutions while also lobbying state institutions to develop improved regulatory and oversight mechanisms. The ICRC initiated and actively participated in the creation of a working group to support the National Service of Apprenticeship, a governmental training agency, to establish an internationally recognized training program for orthopaedic technologists. The ICRC is also working with the Ministry of Social Protection to develop quality standards in physical rehabilitation of the disabled and regulations for service provision in Colombia.

ICRC Helps Colombia

The ICRC has developed an integrated, multi-strategy response to the diverse needs of weapons-contamination-affected communities and victims, while supporting and strengthening those state institutions responsible for assisting them. In this respect, the ICRC is unique—building on its neutrality, independence, access and wide sectoral capacity (water and habitation, economic assistance and protection, among others). The ICRC is the only organization able to provide such broad coverage in Colombia.


Andy Wheatley has worked in mine action for 12 years and is the ICRC Regional Weapon Contamination Advisor for the Americas, based in Bogotá since August 2006. Prior to joining the ICRC, Andy was a freelance consultant for six years, during which time he worked for a variety of organizations on mine-action evaluations, program design, surveys and research, including the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, UNICEF, Handicap International and the Landmine Monitor.


  1. ICRC Analysis completed by Andy Wheatley of official figures coming from the government body tasked with managing mine-action information collection and analysis—known in Spanish as the Programa presidencial de accion integral contra minas antipersonal (PAICMA).
  2. Departments are subdivided portions of a country, much like a state, province, or county, that were set up by the country's government. They are sometimes overseen by semiautonomous governing bodies.

Contact Information

Andy Wheatley
Regional Advisor for Latin America
Comite Internacional de la Cruz Roja
Calle 76 no 10-02
Bogotá / Colombia
E-mail: bogota.bog@icrc.org
Web site: http://www.icrc.org