HRW says international community needs to do more to clear mines from Raqqa

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg    


Homemade landmines have killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including more than 150 children, in Raqqa, Syria since the so-called Islamic State (IS) was pushed out of the city in October 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday. The human rights organization called for more international support to demine Raqqa for ISIS explosives.

IS had planted the antipersonnel mines when it controlled the city. They include devices often called booby traps or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most appeared to be victim-activated and therefore banned under international law.

“The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa was heralded as a global international victory, but international support for dealing with the aftermath of the battle, and notably the deadly legacy of mines, has not risen to the challenge,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. “Explosive devices have already killed and injured hundreds of civilians, but these numbers will most likely increase as more people return.”

According to HRW, between October 21, 2017 and January 20, 2018, mines injured at least 491 people, including 157 children, many of whom died. The actual number of victims is surely higher, as many people have died before reaching any medical assistance and those deaths were not necessarily reported.

Some members of the anti-IS coalition have donated funds for demining efforts, notably for clearing “critical infrastructure.” But local authorities in Raqqa and medical providers expressed concerns about the limited effort to clear residential areas and said there was a shortage of demining equipment and expertise. The situation has led Raqqa residents to pay local people, who are often ill-equipped, to risk their lives to demine homes.

The United States and other members of the anti-IS international coalition, including the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, have provided or promised support for demining efforts, particularly to clear “critical infrastructure sites” while training local residents to take the lead in clearing residential areas. But the local demand for demining is far outstripping existing services.

International donors should make mine clearance and mine risk education a priority to protect people from these avoidable deaths and injuries, Human Rights Watch said. Countries bordering Syria should facilitate access for demining organizations and for humanitarian assistance to survivors.

“Visiting Raqqa, one is struck by the discrepancy between the international support to militarily defeat ISIS and the very timid support to deal with the aftermath,” Houry said. “If the situation does not change, the ISIS legacy of landmines will continue to kill for years.”