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Canadian Military Support to Humanitarian Mine Action

by Rohan Maxwell, Officer, Canadian Army


Humanitarian mine action tasks for the military are almost exclusively assigned to the Canadian Military Engineers (CME). During the Cold War, the CME spent a great deal of time training for mine warfare, while maintaining a keen eye on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) Central Front. Fortunately, the CME did not have to exercise their full capabilities. However, some of the skills the CME had acquired proved useful in unexpected ways as the confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact began to fade.

Between 1989 and 2003, Canadian soldiers participated in three significant humanitarian mine action programs in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). In addition, smaller numbers supported survey programs in Mozambique and Angola. Canadian troops deployed to Kuwait, Iraq, Croatia, BiH, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor, Kosovo, Macedonia, Ethiopia/Eritrea and Afghanistan conducted mine and UXO clearance, which contributed to the overall demining effort.


The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 created a severe mine threat in Afghanistan and a large Afghan refugee population migrated to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The 1988 Geneva Accords set the terms for Soviet withdrawal, but the way home for the Afghan refugees was—all too literally—far from clear. The first humanitarian mine action programs and the first general usage of the term "humanitarian demining" developed in response to this situation.

The United Nations, which had established an office in Islamabad to coordinate the humanitarian demining effort, proposed to address the mine threat there by training select refugees in basic mine clearance and mine awareness. When the projected large-scale repatriation of refugees began following the withdrawal of Soviet troops early in 1989, it was anticipated that this selection program would provide refugees with needed skills and capabilities. In preparation for humanitarian demining efforts, the Mine Awareness and Clearance Training Program (MACTP) was established in August 1988. The United Nations appealed to member states to support the new program. Nine countries, including Canada, agreed to provide military personnel, the first of which began to arrive in February 1989. Canada also provided a Colonel to the MACTP Headquarters to act as the Assistant Controller and Senior Technical Advisor. Between March 1989 and July 1990, four 12-member CME teams rotated through the MACTP.

Initially, the MACTP had two goals. The first was to train 15,000 Afghan men who were then distributed according to place of origin so as to ensure their knowledge concerning the basics of locating, neutralizing, and destroying mines and booby traps. The second goal was to provide mine awareness, which consisted of recognition of mines and potential mine locations, self-extraction from a mined area, and marking techniques. Subsequently, when the pace of refugee return proved slower than expected and more training time became available, the following positions and additional courses were added: basic mine clearance instructor, unit leader, small unit operations and survey.

During the developmental stages of humanitarian mine action, issues such as the broader management of clearance operations and quality assurance were not addressed. Training was conducted in two camps near Peshawar and Quetta, each with a capacity for an average of 250 students. Pakistani army engineers, who also served as additional camp support and administration, established both camps. Working out of these facilities, MACTP personnel trained some 11,000 Afghans in 15 months. Canadian personnel conducted training, updated curricula and verified the technical content of the demining courses.

Mine awareness training was conducted under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on behalf of the United Nations. IRC mine awareness training presented a particular challenge to female refugees, as Afghan culture restricts the use of male trainers for the refugee women and girls. This difficulty was resolved through a peculiarity inherent in the Canadian training system. All CME officers are required to train for both combat engineer and garrison infrastructure support tasks. Female officers, who were at that time prohibited from serving in combat units, nevertheless had to undergo the relevant training. This inequity ended the following year when the restriction was lifted.

Canada was thus in a position to provide qualified demining instructors who could go into the camps to train female refugees. Three members of each 12-member team were women. These officers assisted IRC with curriculum development, taught different aspects of mine awareness to Afghans of both sexes and monitored the instructors once they began to teach their own courses. By July 1990, an average of 40,000 refugees per month were receiving mine awareness training. However, access to female refugees continued to remain problematic due to continued cultural obstacles and a limited number of female instructors.

The last of the 50 Canadians to serve with the MACTP left Afghanistan and Pakistan in July 1990. The program had begun to diversify some time earlier with the start of clearance operations within Afghanistan and continued to evolve as the number of qualified Afghans increased. The number of foreign instructors decreased as the scope of clearance operations expanded. In the long run, however, the use of unpaid civilian deminers who lacked logistic and medical support was not viable, and focus shifted to non-governmental organization (NGO) and commercial operations. In this respect, the MACTP concept of civilians clearing mines around their villages proved to be invalid. This was not a reflection on the trainees or on those who had provided the training; rather, this was a reflection of the nature of demining, the requirement for reasonable salaries and the availability of appropriate support.


In October 1991, after decades of aggression, the government of Cambodia and its opponents agreed to end the conflict by permitting the United Nations to run the country for 18 months. The United Nations was also responsible for conducting elections and supervising demobilization. United Nations troops began to arrive at the close of 1991 and began to withdraw in mid-1993, having shepherded the country through a reasonably successful set of elections, despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge had not cooperated. It was clear from the beginning of the United Nations mission that Cambodia faced an extreme mine threat; one that continued to increase until the final round of fighting weakened at the end of the 1990s.

United Nations forces conducted mine clearance efforts in Cambodia, which included limited survey, marking and mine awareness activities in order to support their own operations. During 1992, United Nations personnel contingents began to train Cambodians under the auspices of the Mine Clearance and Training Unit (MCTU). In 1993, with United Nations withdrawal nearing, the MCTU evolved into the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). The CMAC is a government agency with foreign civilian and military Technical Advisors, financed through a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) trust fund, with the United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS) as the executing agency. CME members were heavily involved in this process. The Canadian government agreed to provide continual military support to CMAC. Incidentally, the term "mine action" appears to have been coined in the process of naming CMAC.

Initially, the 12-member Canadian group was the largest national demining contingent, comprising more than one-third of the first group of military Technical Advisors. However, the Canadian group was gradually reduced to seven, until finally the Canadian commitment was terminated in 2000. Members of the Canadian contingent occupied a range of positions including that of Chief Technical Advisor, which would remain a Canadian post until mid-2000. Other Canadians served as technical advisers in the field and as operations and technical development staff at the CMAC headquarters. The Canadians and other technical advisers assisted with mine clearance operations, planning, procedures, equipment testing, acquisition, mine awareness and information management. In 1999, seven Canadians occupied four positions at CMAC headquarters, including that of Chief Technical Advisor, and three positions in two of CMAC's four demining units.

International support helped CMAC establish itself rather quickly. By the middle of the decade, the organization could field 42 platoons of deminers with the requisite administrative and logistics support, as well as survey, mine awareness and training elements. By 1997, there were approximately 2,500 national staff and 50 expatriate technical advisers employed by CMAC; in 1999, there were some 60 platoons with nearly 2,800 national staff and 50 expatriate technical advisers. The CMAC provided approximately three-quarters of Cambodia's demining resources.

Unfortunately, this success was marred by increasing concerns about mismanagement and corruption, and funding eventually ceased. Lack of funding led to a halt in operations in late 2000, when the organization could no longer sustain itself. The situation was eventually resolved by implementing a national mine action authority, thus separating responsibility for clearance operations from the strategic planning, quality assurance and oversight of those operations. Following previous setbacks, a chastened and reorganized CMAC resumed operations, focusing on clearance. Wider demining responsibilities had been transferred to the newly created Cambodian Mine Action Authority. The success of the changes helped to significantly restore donor confidence.


The fighting that swept across the western Balkans during the 1990s left BiH with a significant mine and UXO problem. After the signing of the Dayton Accords in late 1995 and the subsequent deployment of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR, later the Stabilization Force or SFOR) in conjunction with a variety of organizations ranging from NGOs to indigenous armed forces, the collaborating organizations began to conduct mine action operations. In May 1996, the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs established a mine action center (MAC) in BiH. The MAC operated under a mandate from the Department of Humanitarian Affairs to act as the lead agency for all mine action activities in the country. These responsibilities were turned over to the newly created Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) in July 1998.

The situation in post-war BiH was further complicated because the country was divided into two Entities. Each had substantial powers that, by design, left the State government with limited spheres of authority and responsibility. For example, each Entity maintained its own armed forces and civil protection forces. The division between State and Entity levels meant that BHMAC's authority was limited, even though its responsibilities included the accreditation of demining companies, the promulgation of national standards (including technical standard operating procedures and accident investigation), and the coordination of information management and centralized financial management (including donor funds). Furthermore, the coordination of daily operations was the responsibility of two Entity Mine Action Centers (EMACs), reporting to their respective Entity governments and acting through a number of regional offices. The EMACs enjoyed significant latitude in planning and conducting operations, which would eventually lead to severe difficulties.

Canada's involvement in humanitarian mine action in BiH began in 1997 when six military personnel were dispatched to support the United Nations MAC. The initial six Canadians would be the beginning of a five-year commitment that would involve some 60 Canadians serving in six-month rotations. In the beginning, the Canadians made up approximately one-fifth of the BiH military Technical Advisors, although this proportion diminished over the years. At various times, Canadians worked at the regional, entity and state levels and were involved in training, operations, information management, supply and finance. For example, in 1999, the four-member Canadian contingent occupied several posts including the following:

  • Quality Assurance Adviser (BHMAC)
  • Finance Adviser (EMAC)
  • Two field-level Technical Advisors at regional offices

Demining operations in BiH were conducted by a wide variety of agencies including NGOs, commercial companies, teams equipped and managed directly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Civil Protection forces in the Entities and demining units of the Entity armies. Although not part of BHMAC, some members of the Canadian IFOR/SFOR contingent in BiH had acted and continued to act as mine monitors, ensuring that indigenous armed forces conducted mine clearance operations in accordance with their obligations under the peace accords.

Over the years, mine action in BiH was accompanied by frequent allegations of corruption, mismanagement and misuse of influence. Not surprisingly, donors lost confidence and began pulling funding from the operation as the 1990s progressed. Activities slowed and in late 2000 operations were sharply curtailed due to lack of funds. The development of legislation to centralize mine action under BHMAC and to clearly subordinate the Entity offices to the central agency eventually resulted from international pressure. This legislation was enacted in early 2002, thus beginning the process of restoring donor confidence. The situation has been gradually improving since then.

Research and Development

Drawing on the Canadian Landmines Fund (established to support implementation of the Convention on Anti-Personnel Mines), the Canadian Centre for Mine Action Technologies (CCMAT) was created in August 1998 as a partnership among the ministries for defense, foreign affairs and industry. Working from defense research facilities and drawing on the capabilities of the defense research staff, CCMAT's mandate is to investigate and fund industrial participation in the development and commercialization of promising new demining technologies. As part of this effort, the Centre facilitates the adaptation of military equipment for commercial use and the application of military research efforts by commercial firms. CCMAT projects cover a range of activities, including the utilization of surrogate mines to support the testing of mechanical demining equipment, mechanical and handheld equipment trials, protective equipment, explosives technology, and victim assistance technology.

The Canadian defense research establishment proper has invested significant resources in the development of countermine technology. Much of this effort is focused on military operational requirements, but there is potential for humanitarian demining applications. Some projects, such as the use of high-energy microwaves to neutralize mines, are still a long way from the field; other projects such as the Improved Landmine Detection System (ILDS) are in operational use. ILDS is a remote-operated vehicle equipped with a variety of sensor arrays. It is currently being used by Canadian troops in Afghanistan.


My purpose in writing this article was to provide more information about the involvement of Canadian military personnel in humanitarian mine action and the several organizations and individuals that they worked alongside. It is undeniable many valuable lessons were learned during the period covered by this overview, and it is equally obvious that many issues remain the subject of debate. I am certain that the people whose efforts form the basis of this article would join me in welcoming that debate, as it is essential to the continued improvement of humanitarian mine action.


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Contact Information

Rohan Maxwell
Major, Canadian Army
Military Policy Officer
Department of Security Cooperation
OSCE Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina
Tel: 387-61-133-517
Fax: 387-33-752-354
E-mail: rohanm@oscebih.org