In 2004, Turkey made a commitment to clear all landmines in its territory in the next 10 years; however, the situation in the demining process is rather bleak. After 18 years, Turkey has finally admitted that the mines cannot be cleared by 2025 and requested an extension of deadline. Ministry of Defense says the delay has been caused by “political instability in nearby countries.”

Written by: BURAK ÜTÜCÜ

Translation: Sebla Küçük

Turkey acceded to the Ottawa Convention, or the Mine Ban Treaty, in September 2003, and the convention went into force for Turkey in March 2004. According to the convention, Turkey undertook to destroy all stockpiled mines in the first four years, and clear all landmines emplaced in areas under its jurisdiction in the first ten years. Turkey didn’t adopt new legislation to handle domestic implementation of the convention, and reported that the Constitution, criminal code and directives issued by the Presidency of General Staff are sufficient to validate the convention.

WHAT IS OTTAWA CONVENTION?

The Ottawa Convention went into force on March 1, 1999 to ensure destruction of anti-personnel mines and to prohibit use, stockpiling, manufacturing and transfers of these mines. The convention has been signed by 164 countries, including Turkey; however, 32 countries, including US, Israel, Iran, China and Russia, have refused to sign it. The signatories include Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
Since the Mine Ban Treaty came into force in 1999, 33 signatory states have reported that they have cleared all anti-personnel landmines in their territories. Bulgaria was the first state to complete the demining process in 1999. France fulfilled its commitment in 2008, and the U.K. in 2020.

7 PERCENT OF ALMOST 1 MILLION LANDMINES CLEARED

Turkey reported that it had 936,663 landmines emplaced between 1957 and 1998. As of March 2021, an area over 145 million m2 in Turkey is contaminated with 855,000 mines. Demining work, however, have been undertaken only in 7 to 10 percent of the total contaminated area.
When Turkey first became a party to the convention in 2004, it reported 921,000 landmines in its territory.

By 2014, the number went up to 951,000 as surveys revealed more mines than reported. This means Turkey has only destroyed 96,000 landmines; however, in its extension request, Turkey alleges 119,361 mines have been cleared.

In addition to emplaced mines, Turkey also had 3 million stockpiled mines in 2004. Its original commitment was to destroy this stockpile until 2008, but the destruction process was only completed in 2011.

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SYRIAN BORDER: A HOTBED OF LANDMINES

Out of 855,000 landmines, 606,000 are stretched along the Syrian border, including 411,990 anti-personnel and 194,615 anti-tank mines. Other anti-personnel landmines are scattered across the borders of Turkey, with 116,115 along the border with Iran, 78,917 on the borders with Iraq, 20,275 on the border with Armenia, and the remaining 33,800 emplaced in the hinterland regions. Anti-tank landmines are exclusively used on the border with Syria.

According to an Interior Ministry report covering the years from 1984 to 2009, a total of 1269 people, including 644 civilians, died and 5,091 people were injured due to landmine explosions. The report, which was submitted by Turkey along with the extension request, reveals that 56 civilians (48 men and 8 women) died and 112 (105 men and 7 women) were injured due to incidents related to landmines from 2004 to 2014 (the first ten years when Turkey promised to clear all landmines). 260 members of military staff died and 622 were injured in landmine incidents during the same decade.

According to the same report, 89 people died and 430 were injured due to improvised explosive devices between 2013 and 2020.

TURKEY’S JUSTIFICATION: “POLITICAL INSTABILITY IN NEIGHBORING COUNTRIES”

It’s highly likely that Turkey will not complete the clearance process by December 2025. A report published by Ministry of National Defense under the “Strategic Landmine Activity Plan 2020-2025”, argues that the landmines cannot be cleared due to “political instability in countries neighboring Turkey.”

In March 2014, Turkey requested an extension of deadline by 8 years, which was accepted and the deadline was postponed until March 1, 2022. However, when it became clear that the deadline will be missed once again, Turkish government asked for a second extension by 3 years and 9 months, reporting a third extension will also be needed.

The length of the third extension, which will be requested after the second deadline expires on December 31, 2025, is not known yet. However, there will definitely be a fourth mine clearance period. Therefore, after stretching a 10-year commitment to 21 years with extensions, Turkey has admitted that demining project will not be completed until December 2025. Meanwhile, the project which is implemented in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) will continue with surveys, data update and remapping work.

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FINAL REQUEST TO BE SUBMITTED

During the first three-year period when Turkey requested an extension, the government stated that “non-technical survey of all mined areas will continue alongside demining operations, and the final request for the implementation will be submitted.”

•    The third phase of the Eastern Border Mine Clearance Project (EBMCP) will continue along the eastern borders (Ardahan, Kars, Iğdır and Ağrı provinces) in 2021;
•    96 mined areas (4,242,577 m2) and all border line (Ardahan, Kars, Iğdır and Ağrı) will be cleared, and the province of Van will be completely cleared from landmines.
•    In Mardin, 27 mined areas with a total size of 1,058,000 m2 will be cleared between the years 2021 and 2023.
•    The number of military manual clearance teams will be increased from 32 to 40 by the end of 2021.
•    National Mine Risk Education Plan (NMREP) will be implemented from 2021 to 2023.

BUDGET FOR SURVEY AND CLEARANCE OF MINES IN 2020-2025: 104.8 MILLION EURO

According to the chart published under the 5-year demining strategy plan, the total budget will be 104,800,000 Euro, including 14 million Euro to be paid by Ministry of National Defense. UNDP, the project partner, has announced that demining operations continue in Kars, Ardahan, Ağrı and Iğdır provinces with 20,7 million Euro co-financing from the European Union and Republic of Turkey, while non-technical surveys are undertaken in more than 3500 mined areas in eastern and south-eastern parts of the country.

Under the project, a total of 4,2 million m2 of land will be cleared and handed over to Turkish Mine Action Center (MAFAM).

PRIORITY IN MINE CLEARANCE OPERATIONS

Turkey has laid out the following triage plan to manage the areas that will be cleared first:

•    Mined areas stretching along the southern and eastern borders where new technology systems for border control will be deployed (surveillance towers, patrol lines, etc.);
•    Mined areas in hinterlands which pose risks for locals;
•    Mined areas along the borders and hinterlands which are subject to disputes among private owners; and
•    Mined areas which are requested to be cleared by government agencies.

The mined areas are located in Ağrı, Ardahan, Batman, Bingöl, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Hakkari, Hatay, Iğdır, Kars, Mardin, Siirt, Şanlıurfa, Şırnak, Tunceli and Van.

Turkey has created a plan to destroy 6,408 stockpiled landmines across several years. 2,851 mines were destroyed in 2020 and 557 in 2021. Remaining 3,000 mines are kept in stockpiles for training purposes.

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A TURKEY WITHOUT LANDMINES INITIATIVE: PRIORITY MUST BE GIVEN TO PEOPLE, NOT BORDERS

The coordinator of A Turkey Without Landmines Initiative, Muteber Öğreten, reminds that this is a humanitarian demining project, and stresses that Turkey’s priorities in mine clearance work lead to questions: “Landmines have been used in all areas where war or conflicts took place. In Turkey’s request for a three-year extension, the borders are given top priority in clearance operations, which is a breach of the essence of the Ottawa Convention. Priority must be given to the areas which pose risks for local people, not to border areas.”

Öğreten emphasizes that Turkey has made it a habit to ask for extensions over and over again: “With the extension to be requested in 2025, we will enter the fourth survey and demining period. When we look at the clearance work that has been done in 18 years, it’s clear that Turkey acts recklessly under impunity. Every time there is a delay in mine clearance, we have more losses and injuries which could have been avoided. This does not comply with the aim of the convention, which seeks ‘to put an end to the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel landmines.’”

According to a 2021 report by International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) the number of victims of landmines has been increasing for six years in a row. “Landmine Monitor” report published in November 2021 establishes that in 2020 there has been a 21 percent increase in the number of people who died or were injured due to landmines in 54 jurisdictions, including Turkey.

According to ICBL, Turkey must offer a more detailed work plan for risk education targeting populations living near the mined areas in hinterlands as well as the affected populations near border areas (including refugees). ICBL says annual plans and budgets must be developed for every year during the extension period, and highlights that Turkey has not included information about who will be offering the planned risk education, who will be target groups and which methods will be used for risk education.

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“MINES CLEARED IN ONLY ONE AREA”

According to the figures shared by Turkey in the extension request, there are still 33,000 landmines in hinterland areas. Gürbüz Solmaz, Director of Tunceli Branch of Human Rights Association (İHD), says there are 10,000 landmines scattered across the province, and reminds two children who died after stepping on landmines in 2019: “We believe the number of landmines is even higher, considering the ones that were lost or forgotten during the times of conflict. As far as we are aware, mines have been cleared in only one area in Tunceli - in Kanoğlu village. They cleared the area because the military post there was moved to somewhere else. I think they failed to destroy the landmines because it’s an expensive task or Turkey doesn’t have the necessary equipment or staff.”

Solmaz stresses that livestock breeders and seasonal farmers in the area have been adversely affected by the risk: “I think the reason they stall clearing the landmines is because the security forces want to secure these areas which may pose a risk against them. But this has an adverse impact on people who have livestock or who gather mushrooms in the area to make a living. As human right advocates and residents in Tunceli, we demand that Ottawa Convention be respected and these mines be cleared immediately.”

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KERESTECİOĞLU: RESIDENTS CANNOT GO BACK TO THEIR VILLAGES

Filiz Kerestecioğlu, an MP from People’s Democratic Party (HDP) says, according to the reports submitted by Turkey to the UN, clearance operations have been completed in only two areas: “Under the EU project, they are clearing landmines on the border with Iran and Syria in order to build a wall along the border. However, most of the explosions that cause civilian casualties happen in the hinterlands where clearing work hasn’t started yet. In a briefing submitted to the UN, Turkey says it will start clearance work in hinterlands only after getting some experience during the work near the border areas, but it hasn’t laid out a program or specified a date to start the work.”

Kerestecioğlu reminds that the landmines in hinterlands were emplaced after numerous villages were evacuated in 1990s. She says, “Failure to clear these landmines means residents cannot go back to their villages and their homes. This is a 30-year-long grievance. One of the key issues related to the deadlocked Kurdish question is the tacit prevention of any effort towards clearing these landmines. Clearing the area of landmines will be one big step towards peace.”

Kerestecioğlu emphasizes the move will also help boost the agriculture industry: “Agricultural engineers say out of 216,000-decare mined area, 170,000 decares consist of arable lands, which can be used to grow various crops, such as wheat, barley or corn when clearance work is completed. It is reported that as a result of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, Turkey will see a steep hike in prices of wheat, because these two countries are top exporters of wheat to Turkey. If these lands are used efficiently, Turkey can put an end to its dependency in agriculture.”

Kerestecioğlu says these new agricultural areas would mean job opportunities for seasonal agricultural workers who have to travel to other cities to work: “Some of the largest mined areas are located in Gaziantep, Mardin, Urfa and Şırnak which have very low employment rates. Recovering these lands for agricultural activities will give an opportunity to local people, who have to go to other cities to work as seasonal workers.”

“POLITICAL INSTABILITY IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE EXCUSE”

2020-2025 Strategic Landmine Activity Plan by Ministry of National Defense cited ‘political instability in neighboring countries’ as the reason for Turkey’s failure to meet the UN deadline. Kerestecioğlu says AKP’s ‘zero problem with neighbors’ policy has deepened political instability in the region: “This understanding in foreign policy is directly related to intensive domestic security policies and the delays in landmine clearance work. And these are so-called security policies as their true objective is something else than protecting citizens. According to the latest report by ICBL, 24 people died in 2020 in Turkey due to landmines. Therefore, the excuse offered by Ministry of National Defense isn’t acceptable. With the Russian occupation in Ukraine, the political instability surrounding Turkey has further deepened. Turkey should first address its domestic problems. You can’t ensure stability and security through policies that lead to polarization and animosity in the society and that see citizens as threat risks.”

Kerestecioğlu, who submitted a parliamentary motion for Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, in November 2020 about landmine clearance project, says, “If they cannot meet a 10-year-deadline in 21 years, it is clear that the problem isn’t about technical capacity. The government chooses not to address this problem. If the same government is still in office by 2025, we will have to wait for a very long time until all landmines are cleared. I believe the clearance work can be completed very quickly when we have a transparent government which has the will to clear all landmines.”

“THE STATE ONLY CARES ABOUT SURVIVAL OF THE STATE”

According to the figures reported by IHD, 512 landmines exploded between 1990 and 2002, killing 838 people and injuring 937, including 214 children. Gazal Bayram Koluman, Deputy Head of Diyarbakır Bar Association and coordinator at Center for Children’s Rights, says the state does not have a genuine policy regarding children.

Koluman argues that the state cares only about the survival of the state rather than the victims: “In the event of any violation of rights, the state tries to relieve itself from any liability by claiming that specific organizations are the ones to blame. Although the state knows very well that it is liable for all forms of violations that take place on its territory, courts issue non-prosecution verdicts for all submissions because the people who are liable for the crimes cannot be identified. Of course, we are aware that this is essentially based on the policy of impunity which has been in place for many years. The security policies focusing on survival of the state rather than on victims, as well as failure to adopt relevant measures and to bring those responsible for violations of rights before court result in more violations.”

Highlighting the legal aspect of casualties resulting from landmines and other improvised explosive devices, Koluman says, “There are two paths that can be followed to deal with casualties: case-based criminal investigations or administrative action for damages. Criminal cases often end with ruling for non-prosecution because actual perpetrators can’t be identified. Therefore, criminal cases fail to respond to citizens’ search for justice, which is basically the objective of any criminal case, the compact of citizenship between the state and the people is damaged.”

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Koluman says administrative actions for damage also fail to offer a solution: “When we look at rulings by international courts, the numbers are not satisfying. The most striking example is the well-known case of Ceylan Önkol. The lawyers of Ceylan’s family took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) twice as they could not make significant progress in the courts in Turkey. Their submission was about long-term confidentiality orders placed on the case, lack of effective investigation and violation of right to life. However, ECHR sadly rejected their application. And the criminal case was also shelved with a permanent arrest warrant by Public Prosecutor’s Office in Lice because the evidence was not sufficient to identify the perpetrators.”

* This article has been prepared in the scope of the “New Generation of Investigative Journalism Training Project” which is implemented by Media Research Association in cooperation with ICFJ (International Centre for Journalists).