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Demining, reconstruction of the liberated territories and safe return of IDPs are our main priorities

H.E. Mr. Rahman Mustafayev, Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Diplomat Magazine’s Interview with the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan H.E. Mr. Rahman Mustafayev

How significant is the issue of landmine contamination in Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan faces a significant challenge due to landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contamination as a result of nearly three decades of military occupation of our territories. Let’s start with the sad fact that Azerbaijan is among the most heavily mine-contaminated countries globally, with an estimated 1.5 million landmines and ERW contaminating around 12% of the country’s territory. Over the last 30 years, the cumulative human toll of landmine victims in Azerbaijan has reached 3427; from the end of Second Karabakh war in November 2020 until May 2024, 203 landmine explosion incidents occurred, resulting in more than 350 victims, including 70 fatalities, underscoring the urgent need for mine clearance and victim assistance.

How effective has Azerbaijan’s national demining campaign been, and what are its primary objectives?

Although the end of Second Karabakh war marked the beginning of an extensive humanitarian demining activity, and this action is progressing, we are still at the beginning of the process and more international assistance is needed. Since the end of war in 2020, the total cleared area constitutes only 11.5% of the total estimated contaminated area, and the number of deactivated landmines is 49802 mines, what amount to about only 3.3% of the estimated 1.5 million landmines. One of the reasons is that since the start of large-scale humanitarian demining at the end of 2020, foreign assistance has accounted for only 5% of the resources used for this purpose. So, more active foreign assistance is needed for accelerating demining operations and safe return of 800,000 IDPs to their homes.

What complicates the situation is the fact that the mines were deployed by Armenian military in a manner, devoid of any military necessity and without appropriate markings required under international law. More of it, we cannot receive  accurate maps of landmines planted on Azerbaijani territory, the fact that further complicates demining operations and endangers human lives, and we are raising this issue both on bilateral level and in our arguments before the International Court of Justice. As for the objectives, they are obvious: we have to restore safety in the liberated territories of Karabakh, facilitate the reconstruction of these areas and the development of infrastructure, secure safe return of almost 800.000 Azerbaijani IDPs, and last, but not least, to strengthen international cooperation for collective response.

Over the past two decades, Azerbaijan has built a robust institutional framework for demining. Who are the key stakeholders driving this process?

Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action – ANAMA – stands as the primary entity responsible for humanitarian demining initiatives within the country. Established in 1998, it started demining operations in 2000. Following the liberation of occupied territories in late 2020, ANAMA underwent a strategic restructuring in February 2021, aimed at enhancing its capacity to plan, coordinate, and supervise humanitarian demining efforts nationwide.

This restructuring has facilitated the involvement of national stakeholders, such as ministries of defense, emergency, State Border Service, local and international NGOs in mine action activities across Azerbaijan. Our general national demining capacity today comprises of 2282 members of operational stuff (1590 for ANAMA), 70 mine-clearance machines and 150 mine-detection dogs.

Found anti tank and anti personnel mines during clearance operations in Azerbaijan, September 2022.

What are the main priorities for clearance operations this year?

Given the vast extent of the problem and the constrained resources for mine action, the Azerbaijani government prioritizes the demining of critical areas such as access roads, essential infrastructure, and residential zones to facilitate the return of IDPs. Another critical issue is Mine Risk Education program. The Government of Azerbaijan implements this program to minimize the dangers posed by mines and unexploded ordnance. These efforts focus on enhancing awareness and fostering behavioral changes through public information campaigns, education, training, and community engagement. The primary goal of MRE is to ensure that communities understand the risks associated with these hazards and adopt safer practices to protect individuals, property, and the environment. In total, these initiatives have engaged over 200 local organizations and 452,321 individuals. Mine awareness groups have been established in 80 villages near mine-contaminated areas.

We haven’t discussed the humanitarian aspects of demining efforts. How does your organization support the victims of landmines?

Thank you for raising this issue. Victim assistance is utmost priority in national demining process. The Government provides assistance for the care and rehabilitation, and social and economic reintegration of mine victims and for mine awareness programs. Assistance includes emergency and continuing medical care; physical rehabilitation; psychosocial support and social inclusion; care and protection for all disabled citizens. Based on the agreement signed between ANAMA and National Football Association the team of amputees from Azerbaijan participated in the League of Nations held in Scotland organized by the European Amputee Football Federation. Competing against the teams from the Netherlands, Scotland, Albania and Kosovo in the “D” division, the team was the 2nd and qualified for the final stage of the EuroChampionship to be held in France in 2024.

You mentioned that the level of foreign assistance is insufficient…

Azerbaijan faces an immense landmine contamination and needs substantial foreign assistance in humanitarian demining in forms of direct assistance and collaborative actions. Given our capacity and challenges, the most critical form of assistance needed at this juncture is direct financial donations. Such contributions are essential to amplify the humanitarian mine action efforts and augment the operational scope of ANAMA and other operators. As I mentioned earlier, since 2020, foreign assistance has accounted for merely 5% of the resources dedicated to humanitarian demining. This is notably low, both in light of the gravity of demining challenges Azerbaijan confronts and when compared to the level of contributions typically made by the international donor community to similar issues. Azerbaijan counts on adequate support by the international community to its demining efforts as a matter of humane solidarity.

You highlighted the significance of international cooperation in demining efforts. Could you elaborate on who your partners are in this field?

As I underlined earlier, international cooperation is one of the main objectives of our demining action. For example, in partnership with the ICRC, ANAMA benefits from specialized training provided to its site paramedics, enhancing the safety and efficiency of demining operations. A significant partnership with the EU, the UNDPand ANAMA has led to the launch of a new project, funded with a budget of 4.25 million Euros, aimed at facilitating the safe return of IDPs to liberated areas. This initiative is expected to benefit approximately 33,000 families by improving safety and restoring livelihoods in mine-affected regions. Through this project, ANAMA has achieved a milestone by establishing the first female demining teams in Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, the collaboration with Mines Advisory Group has facilitated training and mentoring programs specifically for female de-miners, promoting gender inclusivity in the field. The contribution of Mine Detection Dogs by the Marshall Legacy Institute plays a crucial role in bolstering ANAMA’s capabilities in detecting landmines.

Azerbaijan has embarked on numerous initiatives to galvanize international attention to the mine problem. Together with the UN, Azerbaijan co-organized two annual international conferences on mine action in 2022 and 2023 with nearly 190 delegates representing 51 countries and 16 international organizations. On May 30-31, 2024 Azerbaijan, in partnership with the United Nations, will host the 3rd International Conference on the landmine issue, in Zangilan and Baku.

Another important area of our interest is the impact of landmines on cultural property. Landmines, explosive ordinances and unexploded ordinances threaten cultural property by directly damaging them, limiting people’s access to these sites and disrupting communities’ connection to their heritage. Azerbaijan has also been subjected to this devastating impact of landmines as much of its cultural heritage decimated during the occupation, and remaining sites are still inaccessible due to heavy contamination with landmines, posing a significant challenge for the affected communities. Upon Azerbaijan’s initiative, a resolution “The impact of mines on cultural heritage” was adopted on December 11, 2023, at the 15th meeting of states parties to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict”. As a follow-up to this resolution a “Special Conference on the Impact of landmines, explosive ordinances and unexploded ordinances on cultural property” was organized within the 6th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Aghdam on May 3, 2024.

Upon initiative of Azerbaijan, the Non-Aligned Movement established a Contact Group on Humanitarian De-mining in July 2023. The Group commenced its activities by holding the inaugural meeting in September 2023 in New York. The NAM Contact Group, chaired by Azerbaijan, aims at fostering a collective approach to a problem that encompasses over 120 million landmines planted globally, with more than 100 million within NAM territories. The group’s formation marks a significant step towards coordinated efforts in humanitarian mine action, emphasizing advocacy, best practice sharing, victim assistance, and resource mobilization towards achieving a mine-free world, thereby contributing to development, peace, and security for the affected countries.

Azerbaijan is hosting the World Energy Summit in November. Are there any plans to address the issue of landmine contamination during COP29?

The negative impacts of landmines on ecosystems are significant and multifaceted. Landmines cause significant environmental degradation by contaminating soil and water resources with explosive residues, heavy metals, and other toxic substances, leading to pollution and disruption of natural ecosystems. Landmines restrict access to large areas of land, leading to habitat destruction and fragmentation.

That is why, as part of its commitment to addressing environmental concerns related to landmines, Azerbaijan plans to host a side event focusing on the environmental consequences of landmines on the margins of the COP29 meeting in November 2024, integrating landmine issue into this important international discourse and emphasizing the need to address the environmental repercussions of landmine contamination.

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