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Handicap International 1995–2005: Learning How to Respond to the Needs of Mine-Affected Communities

Handicap International (HI) was born 23 years ago, in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. The organization was created in order to respond to the suffering caused by landmines and to provide support to people with disabilities in general. Ten years later, in 1992, HI was one of the founding members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Simultaneously, the organization started developing mine action programs in the field.

HI members now work in about 60 countries, including 40 that are mine-affected. As an organization, it is active in various areas associated with all causes of disability, both traumatic (e.g., caused by landmines or road accidents) and infectious (e.g., caused by polio or leprosy). HI assists people with disabilities in developing countries and countries in a situation of crisis; therefore, it is not a typical mine action organization. Its main motivation in mine action is preventing the many causes of disability, so mine action only represents a small part of HI's activities. Solving the mine problem would actually allow HI to devote more resources to other important issues.

HI Programs

With so many landmines in Cambodia, families like this one often live adjacent to minefields.

The first HI mine action programs took place in the framework of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). HI quickly launched programs in other countries, such as Mozambique, Laos, Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A question HI keeps asking itself since then is whether these programs effectively respond to people's needs. A typical answer to that question is that any landmine or item of UXO cleared is going to save a life, but is that enough? What about the needs of mine-affected communities? In too many instances, clearance priorities were decided in national capitals, based on national plans, which too often focused on national-level issues, such as transport or infrastructure rehabilitation, with little consideration for the needs of the people living in remote mined areas.

In addition, in some of the mine risk education (MRE) programs, HI received thousands of requests for clearance and marking, channeled through MRE staff and volunteers. Responding to such requests required the development of mobile and multi-skilled teams that were more flexible than traditional clearance platoons. When the organization managed to provide such a response to people's requests, it discovered that it considerably strengthened its other activities, such as MRE, data collection and community-based rehabilitation. Since receiving requests, HI has been looking for ways to "stick" to the needs of mine-affected communities. In most cases, this maintenance has succeeded through a combination of MRE, data collection, marking and clearance. In some instances, such as in Cambodia, HI tried to go further and, together with CMAC, it developed a rather advanced approach that seeks to integrate a variety of responses including limited clearance (limited to areas defined by communities as absolutely key to their survival), village mapping, long-term marking (for example, concrete warning signs that are less likely to get stolen), UXO disposal, MRE and community liaison activities, land reallocation, and—probably the most important—a strong involvement of mine-affected communities at all stages of the process.

HI Developments

Parallel to the development of its field-based mine action activities, HI developed its capacity to advocate on behalf of mine-affected communities, and its advocacy for a total ban on anti-personnel landmines started to become successful. In 1995, Belgium became the first country in history to ban anti-personnel mines. This achievement was a direct result of HI's advocacy work. It became obvious to the organization that there was a continuum between its work with mine-affected communities and the broader goal of a total ban on anti-personnel mines. Advocacy and fieldwork became complementary and reinforced each other. HI's work in the field gave it the data and the political will to advocate, while its advocacy work gave HI people in the field a strong sense that the mine problem could be solved, provided that civil society and governments worked together towards that goal. In some cases, its fieldwork generated strong civil-society initiatives in mine-affected countries, calling for a total ban on landmines. In Mozambique in 1994, for instance, HI collected 100,000 signatures to promote a ban on landmines together with associations of Mozambican veterans and people with disabilities. Also in Afghanistan in April 1996, together with landmine survivors, Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations, HI organized a major demonstration calling on the Taliban regime to stop using anti-personnel landmines. This demonstration was the first in 19 years in Kandahar; it took place while diplomats were meeting at a Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons session.

The continuum between advocacy and fieldwork took on a new dimension with the entry into force of the Ottawa Convention in March 1999. The emergence of an international norm banning the production, stockpiling, use and transfer of anti-personnel mines provided an extraordinary framework for HI's work, both in the field and at the international level. While Article 6 of the Ottawa Convention generated resources for HI's field programs, HI could also start pressuring states to comply with the new norm. HI's involvement in the creation and governance of the Landmine Monitor system, together with a relentless effort to support universalization and implementation of the Ottawa Convention, even by non-signatories, was a source of major satisfaction for the organization.


Combining international advocacy with mine action in the field can be tricky, though; for instance, what is HI to do when it learns that landmines are used (or even produced) in a country in which it is working? How should it cooperate with states that have not joined the Ottawa Convention, such as Laos, North Korea or the United States? What should HI do when a national legislation complying with Article 9 of the Ottawa Convention leads to a ban of clearance by villagers? How should HI promote Article 5 of the Ottawa Convention, while still concentrating its clearance efforts on priority areas?

So far, HI has sought to resolve these questions by looking back at the reason the organization was created: the provision of an appropriate response to the needs of people with disabilities. Providing such response required pragmatism as well as a strong view of the organization's role and mandate. Questions still remain and are generally solved by dialogue, cooperation and careful listening to the needs of mine-affected communities.

Responding to the needs of people with disabilities is the reason HI was created 23 years ago. Responding to such needs in 2005 is more complicated than it was in 1995, because of the growing bureaucratization of mine action. During this 10-year period, though, HI has discovered that the mine and UXO problem can be solved, provided that the needs of mine-affected communities are the primary focus of the mine action community.

*Photo courtesy of the author.

Contact Information

Stan Brabant
Head, Policy Unit
Handicap International
67 rue de Spastraat
B-1000 Brussels
Tel: +32 2 286 50 59
Fax: +32 2 230 60 30