Matthew Offord is the Member of Parliament for Hendon and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Explosive Threats.
This year marks twenty-five years since Princess Diana famously stepped onto an active minefield in Angola and brought the issue of mine clearance to the forefront of the international agenda.
Since then, conflicts have emerged across the globe and landmines continue to pose a very real threat to innocent civilians.
In 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations designated 4th April as the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. For some, landmines and unexploded bombs are considered a barbaric relic of historic conflicts.
However, as we look to the war in Ukraine, we are seeing the possibility of a European country becoming one of the most contaminated countries in the world in terms of unexploded ordnance.
As many experts in the field know, mine clearance is a long process and will continue for many years – even decades – after the end of a conflict. I have seen the consequences of this first-hand in countries such as Sri Lanka and Morocco.
However, I have also witnessed the incredibly important work that is mine clearance and the positive, long-lasting effects that it can have.
I have just returned from the International Conference on Humanitarian Mine Action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The SDGs were set in 2015 by the UN, as a blueprint on how we can achieve a better and more sustainable future. However, in regions facing the challenge of exploded ordnance, some of these goals will be unreachable without serious action.
For example, we cannot achieve environmental progress whilst landmines remain. Arable land will remain unused, barren, and polluted. Forests that have been destroyed in conflict will not be able to be replanted and ecosystems may never return.
In Azerbaijan, the day before I sat in a conference with diplomats, mine clearance experts and government officials from over 32 nations, I visited an isolated region of the country to see mine clearance in action.
Agdam, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, was once a city with 30,000 residents. However, it is now destroyed after bitter fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces began in 1993. Since then, there have been approximately 3,500 fatalities in the region as result of unexploded weapons.
Following a peace deal brokered in 2020, the conflict officially ended, and rebuilding has now begun. In those two years, the Azerbaijan Mine Clearance Agency (ANAMA) has cleared 19,000 hectares of a total 55,000 unexploded munitions and mines using cutting-edge equipment.
When it first began, much of the mine clearance activity in Azerbaijan was primarily manual, with individuals sweeping land inch-by-inch. Now, with investment, there are dogs, drones and machines speeding-up progress – and making it safer in the process.
Azerbaijan is in the process of becoming an international centre of excellence for mine clearance. I am proud that the UK is playing a huge part in achieving this.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office recently donated £500,000 to mine clearance in the region to fund mine awareness training and the installation of warning signage. British companies and NGOs are also providing support in the form of pioneering mine clearance drones and technical support.
In Azerbaijan, we are seeing a success story begin to emerge. As mines are cleared, new highways follow closely behind and infrastructure projects are quickly developing to help repopulate the area and bring displaced people back to their home city after almost 30 years.
Looking to the situation in Ukraine, we do not know what the outcome of this conflict will be, however much we hope it will go a certain way. Although we cannot predict, we can look at what we do know.
We know that, according to the UNHCR, Russia is using barbaric cluster bombs in urban areas. Cluster munitions, due to their indiscriminate nature, have been banned by most countries for over a decade. On average ten to 30 per cent of cluster munitions fail to explode and can remain active for up to 100 years.
The war in Ukraine is far from over, and our focus right now must be on how we can continue our humanitarian and military assistance to the country. However, this does not mean that we cannot begin to look ahead to the future.
If we want to rebuild Ukrainian cities, if we want people to return to their homes, for farmers to restart production of wheat, and for children to be back in their schools – we must make sure that the risk of unexploded ordnance is absent. If the SDGs are to be effective and achievable in places like Ukraine, then mine clearance must be a priority.
Standing on the newly-built highway leading out of the ghost city of Agdam, my thoughts went to Ukraine. In one sense, looking out onto the barren city, I felt despair for the Ukrainians leaving their homes today, knowing that many will return one day to see their own homes and cities devastated.
On the other hand, I stood there with the knowledge that the land I was safely standing on was once peppered with landmines. As I watched former residents of Agdam excitedly study a map of the planned new railway for their city, I am hopeful that with hard work and determination, we can one day do this for the people of Ukraine.