[AUDIO] Interview with Mr. Michael Hands, Mine Action Officer, UNOAU

1 Apr 2021

[AUDIO] Interview with Mr. Michael Hands, Mine Action Officer, UNOAU

Sandra Barrows

Michael Hands is the Mine Action Officer at the United Nations Office to the African Union. Ahead of International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, Mr. Hands spoke with Sandra Barrows from the Office of Public Information on, among other issues,UN-AU partnership in peace and security and how greater coordination between AU Member States can help achieve a mine-free Africa. These are excerpts from the interview and full audio interview is available on SoundCloud

Tell us about your role in Mine Action at UNOAU? 

The objective of mine action is to identify and reduce the impact and risk of explosive hazards to a level where people are safe. It is more than removing landmines from the ground, but high impact efforts aimed at protecting people from danger, and providing opportunities for stability and sustainable development. As a Mine Action Officer, I am I am the UN Mine Action focal point for the AU in the development and implementation of the AU Mine Action and Explosive Strategic Framework Project.

How does your role in Mine Action help the UN-AU partnership in peace and security in Africa?

Mine action is a critical enabler of post-conflict stabilization, peacebuilding and development efforts. My role is advising the AU on the development of Mine Action and Explosive Management policies and strategies, providing support to the AU Technical Assessment Missions, and providing guidance on African-specific training capacities that could be leveraged to support AU Mine Action activities. I work closely with the African Union, Member States, and key mine action implementing partners. I support field assessment missions directly facilitating the establishment of mine action programmes in Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ethiopia.  I also coordinate with partners to support the AU Peace Support Operations, which has included facilitating Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM) and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) trainings. UNOAU is also supporting the African Union in the development of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) mitigation and Mine Action strategies.

What are some challenges of your work in Mine Action?

One of the challenges that we have is that the Mine Action groups and organizations are seen as legitimate targets and perceived as part of the conflict. I spent a year in Mogadishu in 2015. We were not able to go anywhere without armored vehicles and forced protection. But in a way, this challenge has been changing because it was easy for people to ignore the landmine problem that affects those in the countryside and not as much in the cities (some would argue that with me). But now, with the increased use of explosives and improvised devices, more casualties are civilians in built-up areas. And it is challenging for the leadership of countries to ignore this problem. In fact, they are quite often targeted, as we often see in the case of Somalia.

How is COVID-19 impacting Mine Action?

COVID-19 has put a disproportionate burden on colleagues working in Mine Action. I have Mine Action colleagues who have not had leave for many months because they have been unable to travel. It has put an unfair strain on people, especially those working in the field. On the other hand, many colleagues like myself have been unable to return to the office. Having said that, despite COVID-19, the total of almost 164,000 anti-personnel mines were destroyed during clearance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operations in 2019 globally and a total of more than 131 square kilometres was cleared of anti-personnel mines. However, much is left to be done, especially with the increasing use of indiscriminate weapons like IEDs.

What are some opportunities for Mine Action in Africa?

I have been working with the African Union on the South-South Cooperation. The idea is to get AU Member States with experience and resources to support other Member States, which has worked well. There is a roster of Ammunition Technicians trained on standby to be deployed, for example, in accidents, as with the explosive store in Equatorial Guinea. Through the South-South Cooperation, they have set up a Center of Excellence Training Center in Benin to provide training for other countries with explosive problems and deployed some of their instructors to Mali to get on-the-ground experience. If there is greater coordination between AU Member States there is a lot of expertise and resources already out there that can be put to good use.

What is your personal message to the African Union Member States on Mine Action Day?

Landmines and explosive remnants of war kill or injure thousands of individuals every year. In addition to the human toll, roads remain closed; children cannot go to school, economic and social development is hampered. Landmines and unexploded cluster bombs do not discriminate, they are just as likely to kill a child as they are a soldier. And they keep on killing long after the guns of war have been silenced.  Though the numbers of people killed and injured by landmines have reduced significantly since the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention has been in place, the problem is starting to increase again because of the use of IEDs. Mine Action should get more attention because the knock-on effects of what we do are significant and allows normalcy after war. If we ignore Mine Action for too long, we will see countries falling back into conflict, because every time someone steps on a mine, it reminds them of the conflict and increases tensions.