In May 2009, Cambodia pledged to effectively rid itself of anti-personnel landmines by the end of this decade.
But only two years into the plan, with foreign donations fading away and priorities shifting from mines to other types of leftover ordnance, observers say the country is already falling behind and will probably miss its target.
“I think it’s doubtful,” said Stuart Maslen, after a pause and heavy sigh.
Mr. Maslen edits the Landmine Monitor, a report put out by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the most thorough independent look at where countries stand on their demining efforts. Along with about 1,000 other delegates from around the world, he was in Phnom Penh this week for the 11th Meeting of State Parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, which ends today.
Hailed as something of a crucible for the Convention for all the attention it attracted to the cause in the early 1990s, Cambodia ratified the treaty in 1999, pledging to rid itself of all anti-personnel landmines within 10 years.
But Cambodia later said it would miss that target and asked for-and won-a 10-year extension in 2009. While some hopes were high that another decade would do the trick, expectations have now faded.
It has not been for a lack of progress. In its latest report, released last month, the Landmine Monitor said Cambodia was among the five countries to have cleared the most land over the past year alongside Afghanistan, Croatia, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
“Cambodia’s doing a cracking job,” said Nick Cumming-Bruce, another editor of the Landmine Monitor who focuses on the country. But given the sheer scale of the problem, he said, 2020 “was always considered ambitious.”
The scale of the task is staggering. Ordnance left over from the country’s civil war and bombing by the US have killed or injured more than 63,000 Cambodians since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and continue to claim hundreds of victims a year. And after clearing some 640 square kilometers of landmines over the past 17 years, Cambodia in its 2009 extension request said it had at least as much still to go.
As part of that extension request, Cambodia also said it would clear 39.4 square kilometers in 2010.
But according to the Landmine Monitor, it missed that target by around 25 percent, clearing just 29.7 square kilometers.
“Cambodia could be said to have achieved the target only if the unverified clearance results reported by RCAF are included,” it said in a report released last month.
RCAF reported clearing 27.9 square kilometers, which would put Cambodia well past its target for 2010.
But experts say that RCAF’s clearance techniques are not up to standard and are not verified independently.
“We report their figures, but we don’t include them in the total,” said Mr Maslen. “Our concern is that they don’t accept external verification of their cleared areas…. Everyone else has to be checked; why not them?”
“There’s no reporting from RCAF on what they’ve done or where they’ve done it,” added Mr Cumming-Bruce.
Simply put, they are not convinced that RCAF is really clearing that much land of anti-personnel landmines.
By comparing the amount of land RCAF has been releasing to the relatively few mines and other ordnance it has found, Mr Maslen said, “it’s obvious they are releasing areas that have no contamination.”
The Cambodian Mine Action Authority, which coordinates all mine-related activity for the government, awarded RCAF its first mine-clearing contract as part of the Clearing for Results program, which gets its funding from Australia, Canada and the U.N. Development Program.
With the U.N. watching over its shoulders, the hope is that RCAF will-or will be compelled to-open up and have its work checked. One delegate speaking on the sidelines of the week’s Convention called it a “test case” for the military.
The U.N. declined to comment on the grant, and RCAF officials could not be reached.
With funding for international demining groups at work in Cambodia likely to get phased out over the coming years, Mr Maslen said, RCAF will have little choice but to step up if Cambodia is to even come close to meeting its targets.
And that’s just the start of Cambodia’s challenge.
Both the government and donors this week conceded that efforts to shift full responsibility for demining from outside groups to the Cambodia Mine Action Authority (CMAA) were getting off to a rocky start.
“In the end, the lack of coordination and the lack of [government] ownership, it will only make matters worse,” said Chan Rotha, deputy secretary-general of CMAA. “If we don’t mobilize together…we won’t be able to achieve our target.”
As the government’s main demining arm, CMAA does more verified demining than anyone else in the country. But in the face of funding constraints that forced a staff cut in 2010, its landmine clearance fell by 2 square kilometers from the year before.
Also in 2010 it cleared some 21 square kilometers of old rockets and cluster bombs-just about everything but mines-in eastern Cambodia, more than twice the area it cleared there in 2009.
CMAC Director General Heng Ratana said the shift to the east of Cambodia was a response to the faster pace of development there and the need to clear areas before more people move in. Since 2001, other types of ordnance have been killing and injuring more Cambodians than landmines.
“This preventative action is also very important to decrease casualties,” Mr Ratana said.
When the government asked for its extension until 2002, it said it still had roughly 650 square kilometers of minefields left to clear. However, everyone knew that the estimate was likely to rise.
A part-completed baseline survey due by the end of next year has already upped the figure to 795 square kilometers.
The size of the job is not the only figure moving in the wrong direction. The government figures it will need an average of $45 million to clear away all its anti-personnel landmines by 2020. It is not even coming close to raising that much money. Though government funding stayed steady from 2009 to 2010 at $3.5 million, money from foreign donors fell by more than a third to $24.3 million.
Despite the odds, government officials refuse to call 2020 a lost cause, at least not directly. Most say that success will depend on how much money the government receives.
After years of largesse, donors are shifting their attention to countries like Afghanistan and Lebanon. There is hope that this year’s Convention will draw some of their attention back to Cambodia.
Tim Porter, central Asia desk officer for HALO Trust, one of two international demining groups at work in Cambodia, said that donors should not forget that their work here is not yet done.
“This is an opportunity surely for the donors to pledge support to the Cambodian government and stay committed to clearing the remaining mines and [other ordnance],” he said. “If we can’t get it right here in Cambodia, where we have security, we have peace, we have an opportunity, we’re certainly not going to get it right anywhere else.”