UNMEE MACC's Four Years: Challenges and Responses

The 30-year struggle between Ethiopia and Eritrea (1961–1991), as well as the border conflict between the two countries (1998–2000), left a legacy of serious mine and UXO contamination throughout much of Eritrea. The problem was not seriously addressed until four years ago with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000.1 This peace process rapidly opened the doors for a number of interested mine action players—including the United Nations as well as international mine action non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—to enter the arena and tackle the landmine problem of Eritrea. [Prior to this moment,] there was only a modest national capacity in place to deal with the contamination throughout the country.2

U.N. Resolution 1320

With the arrival of the U.N. Peace Keeping Force and the founding of the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), the Mine Action Coordination Center's (MACC's) mine action programme began. The programme received its mandate from Security Council Resolution 1320, and two subsequent resolutions.3 Resolution 1320 ordains the MACC to "coordinate and provide technical assistance for humanitarian mine action activities in the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ)4 and area adjacent to it." Resolution 1320 seems, at first sight, to have been relevant to the circumstances prevailing at the time. Aside from numerous casualties, the 1998-2000 border conflict resulted in countless displaced persons, many from the TSZ. There was a humanitarian disaster, which called for a humanitarian response. The MACC, together with other mine action players, responded after receiving a direct request from the government of Eritrea for assistance. Indeed, Resolution 1320 opened the door for the MACC to get involved in humanitarian mine action in terms of coordination, and provision of technical assistance.

At the end of 2000, the UNMEE MACC entered a relatively empty playing field, together with an influx of several other international humanitarian mine action NGOs.5 All incoming players immediately recognized the mine action needs of the country. But, with the arrival of so many interested mine action agents on the scene, it quickly became apparent that there was a lack of capacity in place for coordination, oversight and monitoring of mine action activities. There was also a virtual absence of national mine action planning. The situation was complex and somewhat chaotic.

UNMEE MACC Takes the Lead

Setting up the rules and regulations for coordinating mine action in the country, which was only just emerging from a recent conflict, was not as simple as it may at first have been suspected. However, in view of the MACC's mandated coordination function in the TSZ and in view of the fact that there was no strong national mine action agency capable of coordination, the UNMEE MACC took on a lead role in attempting to coordinate mine action activities and assisting the national authorities in establishing some firm national mine action structures. This proactive stance quickly led to concrete results within only 12 months.

Indeed, in 2001, mine action in Eritrea made substantial headway. A year of intense operational and capacity-building activity was well under way. The MACC offered the Eritrean Mine Action Programme (EMAP) accommodation on the premises of the MACC, with the aim of trying to build a bridge to the government staff of EMAP, a fledgling government agency. The MACC established the in-country Technical Safety Standards for Eritrea and worked with EMAP to establish accreditation and licensing procedures for all operators working in mine action. The Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA) was installed—an important achievement. The database was able to produce landmine/UXO area maps, which were provided to all organizations and agencies working in the TSZ. Formally authorized in writing by EMAP, the MACC also implemented a quality control and quality assurance system that allowed monitoring of clearance operations in the TSZ. Much effort was also spent renovating and upgrading the National Training Centre (NTC) with a generous contribution from the German government. The MACC provided instructor support to the NTC, including the training and professional development of 13 national instructors. The MACC also conducted numerous mine action-related courses at the NTC for representatives of all mine action agencies in Eritrea, but primarily for staff from the national mine action NGO. NGO.

Even though there was no formal written agreement signed between UNMEE and the government of Eritrea suggesting that mine action coordination should proceed in this manner, informally, the majority of the mine action players in-country went along with the plan of action and accepted the coordination function the MACC had assumed. The MACC was prepared to step outside of its U.N. mandate, since its activities resulting from the Security Council Resolution 1320 were only vaguely defined. Also, the MACC activities in support of the national mine action programme were undertaken in response to a direct verbal request by the Eritrean authorities for mine action assistance.

By the beginning of 2002, it appeared that mine action support to Eritrea was well-solidified. Mine action operations were occurring on a scale never seen before in Eritrea. The donors greatly welcomed the advancement and generously supported the various Eritrean mine action programmes. The MACC was pleased with its achievements and was keen on moving forward since it was evident much remained to be done.

New Mine Action Proclamation

In mid-2002, the MACC faced an unprecedented situation, which taught it and the rest of the U.N. mine action community an unparalleled lesson. Unanticipated national events threw the mine action activities in Eritrea into disarray, upsetting many international mine action players, as well as mine action donors. But the MACC remained calm, and with the same steadfast and eager approach that the MACC applied to the country-specific situation in late 2000, the MACC again confronted these unexpected national events in mid-2002. What could have been a devastating blow to the MACC programme and operations was turned into a success story.

In July 2002, the government of Eritrea issued Proclamation 123,6 which established a national Eritrean Demining Authority (EDA). This proclamation simultaneously nullified all previously existing national mine action structures, including EMAP. About a month later, the government also announced the expulsion of all international mine action NGOs,7 accusing them of being "all over the place," among many other grievances. In spite of noteworthy progress in local mine action capacity-building by the MACC during the first two years of the mission, the establishment of the EDA amounted to a virtual denial of achievements in this area. The proclamation thoroughly affected the operations of the MACC but left the door open for the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) to start a mine action capacity-building programme anew, now under different circumstances and separate from the MACC. The situation also affected the impressions of donors, who immediately withdrew their funding support from the country, with noticeable exceptions of the Dutch and the European Union (EU). The mine action situation for Eritrea was no longer a pretty picture.

The Challenge

The MACC had no other choice but to accept the proclamation and its consequences. After all, the mistake had been made: the UNMEE MACC had not signed any kind of official document prior to its mine action capacity building and coordination involvement with the national authorities that officially stipulated its role and responsibilities. There was nothing to fall back on. The MACC's effort to reach beyond the vagueness of its security council mandate appeared laudable and rational at the time; however, it now came back to haunt the MACC. A lesson was learned: "activities of a mine action centre resulting from a security council resolution should be defined in clear terms of reference that can then be made the subject of an overarching agreement with the government."8 In hindsight, it is probably fair to say that such a comprehensive agreement with the government, specifying in detail the tasks of the MACC in terms of local mine action capacity building, may have prevented the subsequent actions of the government—but there was no turning back now.

By order of the government, all activities of the MACC in support of EMAP stopped abruptly. With the departure of the NGOs, this also meant that the MACC's coordinating responsibilities of humanitarian demining were no longer relevant, except in so far as UNMEE MACC's own demining assets were concerned. Overnight the MACC was stripped of its responsibilities. But the MACC lost no time in re-defining its mission and the management structure of its activities, doing so with competence and creativity.

The Way Forward

By October 2002, the MACC submitted a revised work plan for its programme. This work plan was expeditiously approved by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and UNMEE. Of greatest importance in respect to this newly developed work plan was the decision to integrate the Peacekeeping Force demining capacity within a civilian-run MACC, while at the same time preserving the final authority of the UNMEE Force Commander in priority-setting and tasking.

A dog handler and his mine detection dog search for mines.

This innovative approach included creative steps such as the relocation of the Peacekeeping Force, the Mine Awareness Cell and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer, and the U.N. Military Observers' Mine Risk Education Cell to the MACC compound, where these elements were combined with elements of the MACC Operations Section to form the Force Mine Action Center (FMAC). The approach included the establishment of an emergency response team to conduct training for the Peacekeeping Force EOD assets and to respond to major emergency EOD tasks within the TSZ. The approach created two MACC Regional Liaison Officers in the Western and Central Sectors and formed two emergency MRE teams, which were immediately deployed to the sectors to conduct work with the Force Mine Action operational elements working in those sectors.

Another deadly mine disposed.

As a result of the new work plan, a further important achievement of the MACC was the establishment of a Demining Coordination Center in Shilalo in Sector West for the purpose of centralizing and improving all operational, monitoring and training activities of the Peacekeeping demining assets in the field.

The revised MACC work plan significantly changed the scope of activities of the MACC. The MACC now focused its attention strictly on its mandated responsibilities, namely coordinating all demining assets of the mission so as to best support the security, safety and mobility of the Peacekeeping Force elements on the ground. The new MACC work plan was a creative and appropriate response to the unexpected and drastic decisions of the Eritrean government in mid-2002. In fact, the work plan resulted in increased efficiency of UNMEE MACC operations by integrating military demining assets into a civilian-run mine action center.8 In this new capacity, the UNMEE MACC became the first-ever integrated civilian and military mine action coordination headquarters within a U.N. peacekeeping structure. The success of this creation culminated in the UNMEE MACC winning a U.N. 21 Award for "outstanding team productivity" in 2003—only one year after the events of 2002.

Since fall 2002, demining assets of the MACC and the Peacekeeping Force have cleared more than 3 million square meters (1.6 square miles) of land and 1,116 kilometers (693.45 miles) of roads. These same assets have also disposed of more than 1,400 mines and 18,000 items of UXO. These are remarkable achievements in view of the functional difficulties that the MACC had to face and resolve in mid-2002, only two years after starting operations in Eritrea.

Lessons Learned

Today, the U.N. mine action community has learned through the experience of the MACC in Eritrea that it is absolutely critical that complete clarity in roles and responsibilities of a mine action coordination center—especially roles lying outside traditional force support functions—must be established from the onset of a center's operation through a comprehensive and official agreement at the highest levels. While the MACC's initial attempt to reach out to the national authorities' request to assist with national mine action capacity building was commendable, it must be kept in mind that capacity development support by an entity closely associated with peacekeeping forces is not automatically acceptable to local authorities and should be undertaken with caution. These are indeed accepted lessons learned; however, at the same time, the experience of the MACC in Eritrea in 2000 and in mid-2002 also highlights the importance of strong leadership that is capable of finding and applying innovative and practical approaches in situations for which template solutions do not exist.

*All photos courtesy of the author.


  1. On December 12, 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Algiers, which ended more than two years of serious border conflict.
  2. Prior to the U.N. involvement, the government of Eritrea initiated mine clearance activities through the establishment of an Eritrean Humanitarian Demining Programme (EHDP), based on a bilateral military programme between the government of the United States and the government of Eritrea.
  3. Security Council Resolution 1344 (2001): "Facilitate Mine Action in Coordination with the United Nations Mine Action Service, in Particular Through Exchanging and Providing Existing Maps and Any Other Relevant Information to the United Nations." Security Council Resolution 1430 (2002): "Demining in Key Areas to Support Demarcation."
  4. Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of Algiers (2000), a 25-kilometer-wide (15.53 miles) and 1000-kilometer-long (621.37 miles) TSZ was established. The TSZ separates the two countries and is patrolled by the U.N. peacekeeping forces.
  5. HALO Trust, Danish Demining Group, Danish Church Aid and Mine Awareness Trust (and the commercial demining company RONCO).
  6. Proclamation 123/2002 of July 8, 2002.
  7. Only one mine action NGO received permission to stay in Eritrea and continue its operations. It was evicted a year later.
  8. "Evaluation of the UNMEE Mine Action Coordination Centre." Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, Revised Final Draft, February 2005 (Geneva).

Contact Information

Andrea E. Poelling, BSFS, MIA
Programme/Training Officer
P.O. Box 920
Asmara, Eritrea
Tel: +291 1 15 04 11
E-mail: poelling@un.org