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Diplomacy in Action

"To Walk the Earth in Safety": 20 Years of U.S. Humanitarian Demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction

Rose Gottemoeller
   Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Tom Kelly
   Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs

Washington, DC
September 17, 2013

11:15 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center, and thank you all for joining us today. Today our briefer is Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs Tom Kelly. And he’s here to talk to us today about the To Walk the Earth in Safety Report: 20 Years of U.S. Humanitarian De-mining and Conventional Weapons Destruction.

And with that, we’ll turn it over to Secretary Kelly.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KELLY: Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. It’s great to be with you this morning to talk about a very important issue. Before I begin, I just wanted to mention that acting Under Secretary Gottemoeller, who is my boss, is planning to join us, too, and she’s going to put what we’ve done over the last year in context of U.S. policy in this regard over the past 20 years. As all of you know, though, it’s kind of a busy week in Washington right now, so she’s working on something with Secretary Kerry. So I hope that she’ll be able to join us later on, but I’m going to go ahead and get started, and if she hasn’t joined us by the time I finish my remarks, then I’ll be happy to take your questions. Okay?

I’m the acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. So it’s a great pleasure for me to represent the State Department as we oversee this effort as we roll out the 12th edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, which provides a comprehensive overview of U.S. assistance for conventional weapons destruction in fiscal year 2012 for the Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement to manage the provision of more than $149 million in conventional weapons destruction assistance to 35 countries, which helps post-conflict communities and countries to recover and rebuild.

Working with a variety of implementing partners, our colleagues in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement cover the full range of conventional weapons destruction activities. Our funding supports not only survey and clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, but also medical rehabilitation and vocational training for those who are injured by these devices, community outreach to prevent future injuries, and essential investment in research and development of new lifesaving technologies. Taken together, these efforts can really help to make post-conflict communities safer and to set the stage for recovery and development.

The funds that are managed by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement fund the destruction of excess or at-risk unsecure weapons and munitions. Working closely with colleagues of the Department of Defense, the program also provides technical and financial assistance for improving stockpile security. Both activities prevent weapons and munitions from falling into the wrong hands. This assistance in stockpile management also helps prevent catastrophic explosions in dangerous depots due to ongoing improper storage and handling of outdated, unstable, and very dangerous munitions. In the tragic cases where depots do explode, we can, through the deployment of our quick reaction force, provide assistance in cleaning up the remaining unexploded ordnance and other dangerous munitions.

As such, the United States was among the first international responders to assist with the disposal of damaged, unstable munitions scattered in residential areas after the depot explosion in Brazzaville, Congo, which happened in March of 2012. These efforts made it possible for a provision of follow-on humanitarian assistance.

So if you’ll permit me, I’d like to just highlight a couple of important points from the new edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety. Afghanistan in fiscal year 2012 remained our largest program. Afghanistan received $40,550,000 in assistance in fiscal year 2012. Under this program, eight Afghan explosive ordnance disposal teams were able to operate independent of oversight from U.S. contractors. Afghan NGOs – nongovernmental organizations – now have the capacity to do this independently. So what we’re trying to do is encourage indigenous solutions to life-threatening situations, but at the same time, save millions of assistance dollars.

We also completed two significant, unexploded ordnance clearance projects at munitions depots – one in Gerdec, Albania, and the other in Chelopechene, Bulgaria. In both of these cases, there were catastrophic explosions that had scattered munitions across the surrounding area, which created hazards for the nearby civilian populations. In Montenegro, Operation Dolphin 2012 involved the deployment of six specially trained dolphins and U.S. Navy personnel that resurveyed portions of the Bay of Kotor that were polluted with unexploded ordnance and to conduct related training for Montenegrin, Croatian, and Slovenian military divers, operations made possible through the joint efforts of the State Department, U.S. Air Force Reserve, Humanitarian and Demining Training Center, and the U.S.-European Command.

Continued expansions of our efforts to clear World War II-era unexploded ordnance in the Pacific with projects in Palau and the Solomon Islands. In Cambodia, the United States funded the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation to conduct underwater demining training, which will provide the Cambodian Mine Action Center with the capability to clear unexploded ordnance from Cambodia’s rivers. We also established a humanitarian mine action program in Zimbabwe, which is going to return to the local population for safe land use land that was contaminated by explosive remnants of war placed during the country’s independence war in the 1970s.

And then Libya, we continue targeted technical assistance to mitigate threats from unsecured weapons, including from MANPADS. We also continue to build Libya’s independent capacity to carry on the vital work that started in the fiscal year 2011. In Burma, we’re currently providing funding for landmine victim assistance and for risk education for the most vulnerable parts of their population. Moving forward, we’re going to work closely with (inaudible) to expand this program. We’ve also been coordinating plans with more than two dozen international nongovernmental organizations to prepare for emergency conventional weapons destruction activities in Syria as soon as it’s safely possible and we’re requested to do so. And currently we’re funding explosive remnants of war risk education for displaced Syrians in Jordan.

The United States is the largest donor to these kind of efforts, but I think it’s also important to keep in mind that the United States is far from alone in these efforts. We share a common cause with those working to address the harmful effects on civilians of indiscriminate landmine use. The United States remains an active member of the Mine Action Support Group which provides a forum for donors to discuss priorities and coordinate their efforts. We also work with the United Nations Mine Action Team, the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining, the Organization of American States, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, NATO, other regional organizations to coordinate assistance.

We’re also very proud of our public-private partnerships in the area of conventional weapons destruction. That presently connects the Department with close to 70 private (inaudible) partners. These partnerships help to unite the resources of the private sector, passion of the nonprofit sector, and the reach of the United States Government so that together we can make a concrete difference that saves lives.

And as I close, I think it’s important also to thank the U.S. Congress for its support for this program (inaudible) Congress’s support, the Senate Appropriations Subcommitee on Foreign Operations (inaudible) partner in advancing this work, and for making the moral and practical case for it. And also, I think it’s important for the American people to know that they, through their tax dollars, are helping everyone to walk the earth in safety.

So I’d encourage all of you to read the report. It’s a great resource if you’re interested in these issues. And hope that you can learn more about how the United States continues to clear a path to a safer world.

And then as if on cue, my boss, Acting Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, has just joined us, and I will give the floor to her.

UNDER SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: Thank you very much, Tom. I am sorry to be late. As you can imagine, things are a little crazy around the Department of State right now. But --

MODERATOR: Just for my colleagues (inaudible), are you included in the camera shot?

UNDER SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: Yes, I was just going to ask.

MR. KELLY: I can move over. Yeah, why don’t you come over here, Rose.


MR. KELLY: Yeah. No, that’s good.


MODERATOR: That’s perfect.

UNDER SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: I love this report, so I hope you will get a lot out of it when you have a chance to read it and review it, and pass it along to other people who might be interested in this extraordinarily important work that the Department has been doing with NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, and other governments around the world, as well as with the United Nations, of course.

So I wanted to just say at the outset how much I appreciate that you are attending this rollout for the 12th edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety. It’s an annual report on U.S. efforts to promote security through our Conventional Weapons Destruction Program.

This year, we are celebrating a milestone. It is 20 years of dedicated multiagency effort to mitigate the harmful effects of chemical* weapons. This effort began with the establishment of the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action Program in 1993. From this original focus on making the world safer by assisting communities and nations to overcome threats from landmines and explosive remnants of war, we expanded the program in 2001 to include activities to address the threat from at-risk conventional weapons and munitions, including so-called Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, MANPADS. The Department of State is joined by the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development – this is the Leahy War Victims Fund that USAID sponsors – and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in this coordinated effort in our government.

In addition, as I mentioned a moment ago, numerous private sector partners contribute to the success of the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Program. Since the inception of the program in 1993, the United States has delivered through the mentioned agencies over $2 billion in aid in over 90 countries to really advance this effort and help overcome threats from landmines and explosive remnants of war. These include unexploded bombs, artillery shells and mortars, as well as the destruction of excess loosely secured or otherwise at-risk weapons and ordnance.

We are the world’s single largest financial supporter of the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program. We share common cause with those working to address the harmful effects on civilians of indiscriminate landmine use. Our efforts have assisted 15 countries around the world to become free of the humanitarian impact of landmines and it helped to dramatically reduce the world’s annual landmine casualty rate.

In the early 1990s, experts estimated approximately 26,000 landmine casualties every year. According to the Landmine Monitor, new reported casualties from landmines and explosive

* Briefer says “chemical” instead of “conventional.”

remnants of war totaled 4,286 in 2011. That number is still too high, but it is a big change from the 26,000 landmine casualties that we were seeing per year in the early 1990s. So this program is having a real impact.

Turning to small arms and light weapons, our program has helped support the destruction of over 1.6 million excess loosely secured or at-risk weapons and over 90,000 tons of munitions around the world since 2001. In addition, countering proliferation of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, also known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, remains a focus. In the wrong hands, these weapons pose a potentially serious threat to civil aviation. So it’s a serious issue that we have been working intensively over the past decade with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and several other partners across the U.S. Government. This concerted interagency effort has resulted in the safe disposal of over 33,000 MANPAD missiles and thousands more launchers in 38 countries since 2003.

In these budget-constrained times, State Department assistance programs, as other assistance programs across the government, are under great scrutiny. However, I believe and we all believe who are working this important problem that the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program has proven a modest investment that is saving lives, demonstrably saving lives, and fostering stability in every region of the world. The program helps countries recover from conflict and creates safe, secure environments to rebuild infrastructure, return displaced citizens to their homes and livelihoods, help those injured by these weapons to recover and provide for their families, and promote peace and security by helping to establish conditions conducive to stability, nonviolence, and democracy.

When I became the T Under Secretary in acting status a year and a half ago, one of the first briefings I had was on this Landmine Action Program, and I was so impressed with the work that our people are doing out in the field every day and with the close and very effective partnership with the nongovernmental community. This to me is a hallmark of an excellent program if it’s effective, if it’s saving lives, preventing casualties, and also bringing together the public entities with the private partners to really make things happen. So I think this is, frankly, a model for the way international programs should develop, and I hope, as I said, that you will really get a lot out of reading this important book and be willing to work with us in the future to get the word out about how important this program is.

So with that, I’m sorry I’m kind of on the fly. I’m running up to Capitol Hill now.