Tradition and principles of humanitarian mine action in Switzerland

Switzerland has been providing political and financial support for humanitarian demining activities for more than two decades. Many dedicated organisations are based in Geneva. They support countries and populations in the fight against landmines. At the Ukraine Recovery Conference 2023, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis took part in a panel discussion on humanitarian demining on 22 June. What is Switzerland doing in this area?

Two men in protective clothing are working on clearing a field of suspected ammunition.

In Ukraine, humanitarian demining is crucial to the resumption of farming activities. © FSD

Switzerland has supported humanitarian mine action efforts in the international community for over 20 years. It is thanks to Swiss efforts that the three Geneva centres – the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) – were established in the 1990s. Over three decades, with the aid of various strategic partners, the centres have developed a solid knowledge base that today serves the many needs of countries around the world. The GICHD is a globally recognised centre of mine action expertise. Thanks to Switzerland's support, it can provide annual training courses to share this knowledge with the countries and people most closely involved in mine action.

Switzerland has always fought for the protection of civilians and the promotion of international humanitarian law, and is currently prioritising these principles during its term on the UN Security Council. Humanitarian mine action is central to this commitment. In countries affected by conflict, mine action is a basic prerequisite for long-term reconstruction.

Humanitarian demining, a cornerstone of Ukraine's recovery

The Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC) in July 2022 marked the start of the reconstruction process in Ukraine. The conference in Lugano provided an opportunity to coordinate international support and discuss the priorities, which include humanitarian mine action. The clearance of vast minefields in the worst affected areas in the east and south of the country is essential to allow farming to resume. Mine action is needed to regenerate the country's economy and provide safe access to crucial electricity, water and transport infrastructure. For refugees and those displaced within Ukraine to be able to return home, contaminated areas must be cleared of mines and explosive ordnance.

International agreements

The last 25 years have seen the signing of some major international agreements, including the
Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions. More than thirty countries have completed operations to eliminate anti-personnel mines and ten have eliminated their remaining stocks of cluster munitions.

The Ottawa Convention (anti-personnel mine ban)

The convention adoped in 1997 prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines. It has been ratified by over 160 states, which have undertaken to destroy their stockpiles of anti-personnel mines within four years of ratifying the convention and all anti-personnel mines in their territories within ten years. Switzerland was one of the first countries to ratify the convention in March 1998. It destroyed its last stocks of anti-personnel mines in 1999.

Oslo Convention (cluster munition ban)

The convention adopted in 2008 bans the development, production, use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. Over 100 countries have ratified it to date. Switzerland ratified the convention in July 2012. Following ratification, Switzerland adapted its federal law on war materiel and undertook the neccessary action to destroy its own stockpiles by 2018.

Why is mine action necessary?

Mines and other explosive ordnance remain active for decades after hostilities end. The devices contaminate vast areas and are a grave threat to local communities. Accidents involving anti-personnel mines take the lives of many people, including children.

Mine action also helps mitigate the social, economic and environmental consequences of mines and other explosive ordnance. That is why in addition to mine clearance, it is important to invest in educating people about the risks, supporting victims and advocating for the prohibition of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions.

Infographic with facts and figures on Swiss demining expertise.
Mines and other ammunition pose great danger to local populations. © FDFA

What types of mine does Swiss mine action target?

There are essentially two types of landmine: anti-tank (or anti-vehicle) mines and anti-personnel mines. Switzerland and its partners engage in mine clearance activities to destroy mines which, due to their nature, design and large-scale deployment, cause numerous casualties among the civilian population. Unlike anti-vehicle mines, which are mainly used for military purposes, anti-personnel mines target civilians and combatants indiscriminately. It is these devices that all Swiss-backed mine action can – and must – tackle.

The story of Lith Soyda, injured by cluster munitions in Laos

What consequences can anti-personnel mines have for civilians? In Laos, one of the countries worst affected by remnants of cluster munitions, a young man tells of how his life was disrupted as a child. Lith Soyda was only six years old when he stumbled upon a sub-munition.

Lighting a campfire outside his grandparents' home, he was surprised by a heavy explosion that sent him into a coma. When he eventually awoke in hospital, he had lost his sight in one eye and the fingers of his right hand. "My parents spent everything they had on saving me and I had to undergo months of rehabilitation to attempt to regain a normal life," he explains. Lith Soyda, now 20, is about to finish college. Supported by Handicap International, he is also doing an induction to start a volunteer position as an advocate for disabled people in Laos.

Switzerland currently provides direct funding for projects in 13 countries. It has also seconded 14 experts to seven different locations. In all, 17 countries currently benefit from Swiss support and expertise. In the immediate context of Russia's military aggression in Ukraine, Switzerland's support has insisted from the outset on the universality of the rules of international law and has focused on synergies between development cooperation and humanitarian mine action.

Three fields of Swiss humanitarian mine action

The 2023–26 Humanitarian Mine Action Plan sets out three fields of action to guide Switzerland's activities around the world. These focus on promoting the rules of international law, mine action in the field and research and innovation.

Switzerland's primary objective is to ensure that states respect and implement their obligations under international law and international humanitarian law. It is Switzerland's responsibility to promote the various existing conventions in the relevant multilateral forums. Under international law, actors such as non-state armed groups are bound by the same obligations. International Geneva plays a crucial role in the humanitarian disarmament process, a role which needs to be supported further.

A second priority is mine action in the field in the countries and areas affected by mines. These efforts focus on the clearance of mines and other explosive ordnance, raising awareness of the risks and victim support. Through projects and the secondment of experts, Switzerland is helping to make life safer for those affected and creating the conditions for sustainable development. Swiss mine action emphasises local ownership in order to sustainably develop capacities in the affected countries.

A third priority is to harness opportunities offered by innovative approaches. Switzerland encourages the consistent application of international mine action standards and the updating of standards in response to specific challenges such as the contamination of urban areas and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It promotes the judicious use of new technologies to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian mine action efforts. It also funds the innovation and technology workshops organised by the GICHD in Geneva.

2023-2026 Action Plan on Mine Action (PDF, 28 Pages, 4.1 MB, English)

What organisations does Switzerland work with?

To carry out its humanitarian mine action activities, Switzerland funds and works closely with various strategic partners. The GICHD and Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), also based in Geneva, are the two main organisations. Switzerland enjoys a high level of credibility at international level thanks to these two organisations, which have been operating worldwide for 25 years. This helps to strengthen International Geneva's position as the main global hub for disarmament and global governance. Geneva's international status is also important in helping to connect the dots between foreign and domestic policy in Switzerland.

FSD experts work in the field to destroy anti-personnel mines and explosive ordnance and directly support communities affected by armed conflict and instability. The GICHD combats the proliferation of landmines, cluster munitions and the stockpiling of munitions. Every year, it supports around forty affected countries and territories.

Concrete activities in the context of Ukraine

In the wake of Russia's military aggression, which left vast areas of Ukraine contaminated by mines and other explosive ordnance, Switzerland has carried out mine clearance operations in the country in cooperation with the GICHD and FSD. Both organisations are officially accredited in Ukraine to carry out their activities.

The Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) has funded training courses through the GICHD since July 2022 and on site in western Ukraine since autumn 2022. The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has been helping to educate people of the risks through an FSD project and to encourage well-coordinated mine action, notably through an international meeting organised by the GICHD, which was attended by the major stakeholders in Geneva.

At Ukraine's request, the FSD is carrying out technical and non-technical surveys in Chernihiv, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv, and has begun clearing the worst-contaminated sites in these regions under the auspices of the UN and FAO project. 

As well as partnering with the FSD and GICHD, Switzerland works closely with NGOs such as Geneva Call, the Cluster Munition Coalition and Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Which federal government departments are involved in humanitarian mine action?

Switzerland takes a whole-of-government approach to mine action. The activities to implement the Mine Action Plan 2023–26 are a collaborative effort of the FDFA and the DDPS.

Within the FDFA, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is responsible for victim support, mine prevention and the development of local capacities. The Peace and Human Rights Division (PHRD) focuses on mine clearance projects and funds mine action organisations recognised by Switzerland and by the international community. The FDFA also plays a leading role in the political arena.

The DDPS seconds specialists from the Swiss Armed Forces to UN mine action programmes. The seconded personnel travel to affected areas to build capacity among local communities, in close contact with several groups of mine clearance experts, and to pass on the knowledge needed to maintain the efforts in the long term. The DDPS has presented the SESU, Ukraine’s civilian emergency service, with a demining machine developed and manufactured by the Swiss Digger Foundation. The machine is a remote-controlled caterpillar vehicle the size of a small bulldozer. It can destroy or detonate anti-personnel mines with a cutter, rendering them harmless.

How much Swiss funding goes to mine action?

Every year, Switzerland spends between CHF 16 and 18 million on mine action. It is one of 15 major donors worldwide. A large part of the funding goes to GICHD training programmes (CHF 9.5 million each year). The funding is allocated on the basis of the framework credit providing ongoing support for the three Geneva centres for 2020–23. Switzerland contributes around 50% of the GICHD's budget.

The Mine Action Plan includes an additional budget for Ukraine. Humanitarian mine action in Ukraine requires long-term commitment. For the 2023–28 period, around CHF 150–200 million of Switzerland's international cooperation framework credit has therefore been earmarked for Ukraine support efforts.

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