Major General James Cowan was a top British Army officer before joining anti-landmine charity the Halo Trust. He talks to Chris Bond about the need to rid the world of these barbaric weapons.
It’s 20 years since Diana, Princess of Wales, was famously pictured walking through a minefield that was being cleared in Angola.
The photograph, taken just months before her untimely death, made headline news around the world and helped establish her as a figurehead for the international campaign against landmines.
She visited some of those injured by these pernicious weapons and spoke passionately about the issue, despite facing criticism when she called for an international ban with Earl Howe, then Junior Defence Minister, describing her as a “loose cannon” who was ill- informed on the subject.
Nevertheless, she brought the issue to the world’s attention. However, despite the global success in removing landmines – a record area of land (77 sq miles) was cleared in 2010 – the number of people killed or injured by them and similar weapons rose to 6,461 in 2015, a 10-year high.
In April this year the UK government announced it was investing £100m in an ambitious plan – backed by Prince Harry – to rid the world of landmines by 2025. For anti-landmine charities like the Halo Trust this was a welcome boost in tackling what has been called a ‘global scourge.’
Its chief executive Major General James Cowan, who served in the British Army for more than 30 years, is in Yorkshire this week where he’s giving a public lecture at the University of Leeds, as part of its war and peace studies conference.
He says most countries, including the UK, are committed to getting rid of the landmines. “It’s a really important strategic decision because it means we not only have a target but also a roadmap of the countries that will be cleared.
“There aren’t many people now producing landmines so it’s a real international success story.”
At the same time, though, it remains a struggle to maintain international pressure and keep the issue in the public eye. “Diana brought this whole campaign to life, but the sad truth is people have now forgotten about Angola. There is still two-thirds of Angola covered in landmines which is why we are keen to raise awareness and help get that country cleared.”
Cowan, who joined the British Army in 1982 and served in places like Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe before going on to command in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen first hand the damage landmines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) can inflict.
“I was commander of the British Army in Helmand and during my time there of the 64 of my soldiers who were killed, half were killed by IEDs.”
There’s a mistaken belief among many people that landmines, a legacy of the Cold War, have largely been eradicated, but Cowan says they remain a lethal threat.
“If you look at the casualty rates they’ve been rising sharply in the last two to three years and this is born out of what’s happening in Afghanistan where we’re seeing renewed violence, it’s born out of the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the breakdown of law and order in Libya and Yemen.
“I could also name other countries like Somalia and Nigeria, while Columbia is a forgotten story where peace has been restored but there is a considerable problem to remove. There are millions and millions of landmines still present in the world and there are countries out there still heavily contaminated.”
In Syria, at least 15,000 children have been killed since the conflict started and many were the victims of landmines. “People put them in the ground for an immediate purpose which is to stop movement and kill anyone who tries to cross the minefield.
“But the evil aspect is the war moves on but the mines don’t and they remain just as lethal five years, 10 years, even 50 years later. So it’s often civilians and usually children who are killed as a result.”
Cluster munitions, he points out, are particularly iniquitous. “These things sit on the ground, they’re quite small and shiny and if you’re a 10 year-old boy you’re drawn to them because they look like a toy.”
Tragically, it’s often the poorest that suffer. Many of the victims who end up either killed or maimed are children sent out to look for metal because it can then be sold for scrap and they pick up these objects with horrific consequences.
There is a link here to the fight against terrorism. “In Britain we’re very focused right now following the events of the past few weeks. But I would argue you cannot simply address the problem of terrorism on a domestic basis, you need to address the root cause and terrorism is not the root cause.
“The root cause is the displacement of people around the world and the breakdown of societies in countries like Libya, and organisations such as the Halo Trust have a really important role in restoring that.”
The charity also wants to push the issue of landmines back on the international agenda, just as Diana did back in 1997. “Diana had a huge impact and Prince Harry now is having an equal impact. He has the same charisma and he’s also got the credibility of having fought himself in these sorts of conflicts,” says Cowan.
“We’ve had success putting it back on people’s radars but there is widespread recognition that the wars we are seeing, mainly in the Middle East, have caused these problems to revive.”
The Halo Trust employs 7,298 people around the world and Cowan points out that the vast majority are locals recruited to help rebuild their communities.
“The land is restored for housing and farming,” he says. “It’s about creating a long term economic benefit and perhaps most importantly we’re part of the peace process.”
The UK is committed to spending 0.7 per cent of the country’s gross national income on overseas aid each year, something that has proved contentious, but Cowan believes it’s the right policy.
“The question is, is it well spent? And a world free of landmines is not only highly desirable it is achievable in a caveated way. It’s a bit like smallpox. We can rid the world of landmines country by country and we are going to pick these countries off one by one which will be a remarkable achievement,” he says.
“The place where Diana visited in Angola is now a thriving township, it is unrecognisable and what was once essentially a desert is now full of life.
“There are places that will be hard to reach – I’m not going to North Korea any time soon – so it will take time. But it’s not like a disease, these landmines can’t spread and once they’re cleared they don’t return.”
Major General James Cowan’s public lecture takes place on June 15, at 6pm at the University of Leeds. It is free, but booking is essential via https://goo.gl/gVbK7J
Children suffer long after wars
According to a report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the number of casualties worldwide rose to 6,461 in 2015, up 75 per cent on the previous year.
Civilians made up more than three-quarters of the victims, while over a third were children.
The Halo Trust was founded in 1988 and is the oldest and largest humanitarian mine clearance organisation in the world with humanitarian programmes in 15 countries.
In April this year it helped launch the #LandmineFree2025 campaign, which calls on the international community to honour its commitment to the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty and rid the world of landmines by 2025.