Progress in Removing Argentine Mines from the Falkland Islands

The fourth phase of the de-mining project in the Falkland Islands has just finished with nine of eleven minefields along the Stanley-Mount Pleasant road, selected for this phase, now fully cleared.

The Argentines are believed to have laid up to 25,000 anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines in the Falkland Islands during the 1982 conflict but, since the start of the de-mining project in 2009, as yet only 8,084 mines have been cleared. One of the problems is that many of the minefields were laid in haste over at least 20 square kilometres and Argentine records are incomplete.

The UK ratified the Anti-Personnel Mine Convention (or Ottawa Treaty) in 1998 which came into effect with over 160 States Parties on 1 March 1999. Article V of the treaty set a ten year deadline for clearance. The UK had, however, to seek a ten year extension up to 2019, which was granted by the UN Conference on Disarmament in late 2008. During the negotiation of the Treaty, the UK had floated the possibility of including provisions that would have exempted the Falklands from the UK’s de-mining obligation but this had been rejected at the Oslo Diplomatic Conference in September 1997 as opening up a loophole that other countries might have tried to exploit.

The problems involved in de-mining in the Falklands – their remote location, difficulties of terrain, poor weather conditions, inadequate Argentine records, the likelihood of environmental damage, and cost – were widely acknowledged.  There was also little pressure from the Islanders themselves to have the minefield areas cleared. They were clearly marked, represented only 0.1% of potential farming land, and were no threat or serious hindrance to the local community. Many Islanders felt that the sums involved in clearance might better be used in removing mines in more critical regions elsewhere in the world. But the UK had to acknowledge its responsibility for clearing the mines in the Falklands, not just for sovereignty reasons but also because the Treaty laid the responsibility of the receiving, not the laying, state.

Initially, the UK sought the co-operation of the Argentine Government. It was agreed during President Menem’s visit to London in 1998 that there should be a joint feasibility study. This was included in the Joint Statement of 14 July 1999 in the confidence-building section. After over three years of negotiation, bedevilled by Argentina’s sovereignty claim, a Memorandum of Understanding was agreed in October 2001 on the details of the joint feasibility study. This took place during President Nestor Kirchner’s regime but with the Argentines only as observers; they did, however, make their minefield records available.

In November 2008, the UK announced its intention to de-mine the Falklands at the Conference on Disarmament at the same time as seeking and obtaining its ten year extension to the deadline. In October 2009, the UK (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) signed a contract with a British firm - BACTEC (Battle Area Clearance, Training, Equipment and Consultancy) – to undertake the first phase; they remain the contract holders and have built up considerable expertise in coping with the difficult conditions in the Falklands.