Landmine clearance: revealing differences in US and Norwegian approaches to insecurity

    23. August 2010, 15:25
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    What can a study of landmine clearance tell us about the countries, their values and the national policies behind these efforts? Apparently quite a lot

    The nature of armed conflict is changing. Globalization and privatization have produced conflicts that incorporate non-state actors like rebels, fundamentalist networks and organized crime and link with global flows of information, finance and illicit trade.

    As governments realize that managing the insecurity from these conflicts is not as simple as sending a tank division or bombing raids, they have developed responses that mirror the networked, privatized and globalized nature of such wars.

    The peace and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo are not the state-centric nation-building seen in post-WWII Germany and Japan. Rather, they are shaped and implemented by a dizzying array of multilateral organizations, Western and local security forces, aid agencies, host government ministries and foreign embassies.

    Understanding contemporary peace and reconstruction efforts requires analyzing how these constellations of public and private groups form complex relationships of collaboration, cooperation, competition and conflict. Different arrangements of these actors and relationships produce different results.

    As part of a four-year research project that has included on-the-ground fieldwork in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Sudan, extensive interviews with over 100 officials and detailed archival studies, I have begun to compare two alternative ways of arranging such networks:
    Looking at the landmine clearance sector as a case study, I compared the ways that US and Norwegian foreign aid for demining embodied very different visions of how peace and reconstruction work should look in a globalized, networked and privatized world.

    While this is a somewhat stylized generalization, the US, particularly the Bush Administration, reacted to this challenge with twin processes of militarization and commercialization. Much of US funding for landmine clearance has been contracted out to private security groups like Dyncorp and G4S. Strategic, military and counterinsurgency interests have often influenced priorities for clearance, such as military bases, key roads or areas of high politico-military importance.
    For instance, a document produced by the US Defense Department's humanitarian demining program lists as its objectives, "counter ideological support for terrorism", "provide access to regions where traditional military-to-military engagement is virtually impossible", provide Special Forces with "training opportunities in remote and austere environments" and enable them to "learn about the host nations' economy, culture, and hone their foreign language skills."

    At the same time, the US has refused to join, and has diplomatically undermined, international treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions (whose unexploded duds act like de facto landmines), though the Obama administration does seem more open to the possibility of changing this policy.

    In more academic jargon, the US has reacted to the insecurity of landmines by creating ‘strategic-commercial complexes', in which militarized and securitized public bodies contract out significant authority to commercial companies. Security is derived from the fortification of enclaves - a division of the world into ‘Green' and ‘Red' Zones - where certain people's security (US citizens, US soldiers, strategically important populations) is privileged over others, who can be subjected to US use of cluster munitions and management by private security forces.

    Norway has also globalized and privatized its landmine policy, but in a very different way. Unlike the US unilateral approach, Norway has been at the forefront of a wide network of states and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have seen banning landmines and cluster munitions as an opportunity to reduce insecurity through developing international law and norms.

    Norway's assistance for demining has been shaped more by notions of humanitarianism - helping those most vulnerable to the threat of mines - than by strategic interest. And rather than competitive tendering to private security firms, most of Norway's demining aid is dispersed through long-term grants to humanitarian NGOs.

    "We think that NGOs have a stronger sense of idealism, they're more committed to the task at hand, rather than being committed to the bottom line," a Norwegian diplomat responsible for landmine issues told me.

    In other words, Norway's landmine policy creates a kind of ‘human security-civil society complex', shaped by humanitarian norms and a global understanding of interest, in which public and multilateral agencies form partnerships with NGOs and social movements. Rather than walling off the privileged core of the international system, they aim to diffuse protection out from core to the insecure periphery through aid, advocacy, persuasion and the development of legal norms.
    At the level of implementation in mine-affected countries - Afghanistan, Bosnia and Sudan - I found that Norwegian long-term grants to international NGOs produced demining that, while sometimes more expensive and slower, was targeted on humanitarian priorities, safer and of better quality. Such programs also attempted to build inclusive institutions and resist the politics of violence.

    In contrast, US efforts were cheaper and faster but also less safe and of lower quality. Several of the private companies became more entangled in the shadier elements of the local economy than the international NGOs supported by Norway. Empowering private security companies may also contribute to the fragmentation of the public control of the use of force.

    In many ways, it is easier for Norway to shape a humanitarian landmine policy than the US. As Jan Egeland, the Norwegian former UN chief of humanitarian affairs, has pointed out, Norway has fewer strategic and commercial interests than the US and so has more space to make foreign policy decisions based on ideals rather than interest.

    The Pentagon is much more influential in the US than the Ministry of Defense is in Norway. And as a small state, without the military and economic power to project its authority globally, Norway's security is linked to winning goodwill and tying the world's people to down to stable and predictable norms and laws.

    However, I have found that in places and times when US strategic interests were not as strong, US demining aid often followed similar patterns as Norway's. In the 1990s, the US supported the UN and NGO-implemented demining in Afghanistan and more recently, it has funded international demining NGOs in Sudan. In both countries, these programs have tried to span ethnic and political divides and build inclusive, non-violent institutions.

    Thus, while it may be too much to ask for the US to abandon militaristic approaches to security in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be possible for the US to take a ‘human security-civil society' approach in times and places where the political space exists.

    This will give the US an opportunity to implement policies that do justice to the idealist strains in American thinking about foreign relations. It could also build a reserve of goodwill toward the US in the global peripheries and contribute reducing sources of insecurity that cannot be eliminated simply through counterinsurgency.

    Matthew Bolton received his PhD in government from the London School of Economics early this year. This article reports on aspects of his research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which explored the politics of US and Norwegian foreign aid for demining in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Sudan. Dr. Bolton's findings will be published by IB Tauris later this year, in a book entitled, Foreign Aid and Landmine Clearance. Read his blog at: politicalminefields.wordpress.com (Matthew Bolton, London School of Economics, www.atomiumculture.eu)

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