The territory of Western Sahara has suffered from more than 35 years of conflict due to sporadic fighting between Morocco and the independence movement known as the Frente POLISARIO.
The territory on the north-west coast of Africa was previously run by Spain until the country withdrew in 1976, increasing tensions between the parties.
Although the parties to the conflict generally abide by a 1991 ceasefire, the expansive territory remains contaminated by an unknown quantity of mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW). And though no full landmine survey has been completed as yet, some international experts consider Western Sahara one of the most heavily mined territories in the world.
Minefields and ERW have so far been identified in over 200 locations, including a defensive minefield along the berm, the 2,000-km walled earthen boundary which separates the conflicting parties. This threat affects an estimated 10,000 Saharawi nomads and their families and hinders the repatriation of an estimated 120,000 Saharawi refugees.
The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in 1991 in accordance with the settlement proposals accepted by Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO. The Mission is tasked to undertake a range of activities, including monitoring the ceasefire; repatriating refugees; identifying and registering qualified voters; organising and ensuring a credible and transparent referendum and announcing the results; and reducing the threat of unexploded ordnance and mines, among others.
In 2008, the United Nations Mine Action Service established a Mine Action Coordination Centre in the framework of MINURSO. The goals of UN mine action in Western Sahara are:
- To reduce the humanitarian risks and improve living and operating conditions for Saharawi and UN personnel by providing technical support, coordination between partners and quality assurance.
- To assist in creating an environment that is conducive to peace and security in Western Sahara and allow for the resettlement of the Saharawi refugees.
The Mine Action Coordination Centre in Western Sahara will continue to play a key role in ensuring that the mine action response evolves to meet the scope and scale of the threat; and that operations are conducted in accordance with International Mine Action Standards.
|Battle area operators doing a visual search
© Martine Perret/UN
Since 2006, Landmine Action, a not-for-profit organisation working under the umbrella of the coordination centre, has mapped 225 dangerous areas, including 187 cluster munitions strike areas, 38 minefields and one ammunition dump. Using these results, Landmine Action cleared over six million square metres of contaminated land from November 2009 to July 2010. During these activities, 477 anti-personnel mines, 1790 anti-vehicle mines, and more than 5000 explosive remnants of war (ERW) were found and destroyed. In total 48 areas of cleared land were handed back to local communities on 1 March 2010.
On the west side of the berm, mine action is being conducted by the Royal Moroccan Army. The UN mission coordinates with the army to help fulfil its mandate and the implementation of specific military agreements. The army is also working independently to carry out the demolition of unexploded ordnance (UXO) west of the berm. Morocco reported the clearance of 1,133 km2 and the discovery and destruction of 2,195 anti–personnel landmines, 7,000 UXO and 97,293 other ERW between 15 January 2007 and 30 October 2009.
New minefields and cluster munition strike areas are being discovered as clearance and survey operations unfold. Every month the safety of nomadic shepherds, UN military observers and local people living in proximity of the contaminated areas is jeopardised as they are exposed to serious threats. Given the enormous size of the territory, the extreme lack of infrastructure and the threat posed by the extent of contamination; expansion in the mine action sector is urgently needed to create an environment that is conducive to peace, security, and prosperity.
To enhance the current response, and help reach the UN mine action goals, the following actions are required:
- Increase the number of Battle Area Clearance and EOD teams to complete clearance of ERW identified in the Dangerous Area Survey.
- Undertake surveying and clearance of the buffer strip.
- Develop Mine Risk Education trainings to mitigate exposure to risk.
- Increase collaboration and information sharing between the different mine action stakeholders working in Western Sahara.
- Continue collating and interpreting data on mine/ERW clearance, accident, victim and MRE information.
- Provide victim assistance and increase socio– economic reintegration opportunities for victims of mines/ERW.