The director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was in Phnom Penh the other day, for the biggest international meeting that Cambodia has probably ever held – a gathering of all the countries which have signed up to the anti-personnel landmine ban treaty.
There are more than a hundred of them and they spent the best part of a week explaining what they were doing to clear minefields or to get rid of stockpiles of the weapons. Just to concentrate minds, they also made field trips to some of the host country’s many mine-contaminated areas.
All of this sounds pretty impressive until you realise a few things. More landmines were deployed in the past year than at any time since 2004. The likes of China, Russia and the United States haven’t signed up to the mine-ban treaty. And while overall funding for de-mining has risen, money for clearing up places like Cambodia has actually gone down.
That’s despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people here still live in mine-contaminated areas. And around 286 were blown up by left over mines and munitions just last year.
The lack of funding means that it’s highly unlikely Cambodia will meet its target to clear its minefields by the end of the decade. And a walk around the landmines exhibition next to the conference told me why.
An impressive collection of white-painted, armoured de-mining machines were assembled in the car park of the old train station. They’re converted bulldozers and excavators – a gift from Cambodia’s biggest donor Japan.
The man from Hitachi proudly showed us round the machines his company had made. He explained that the spinning metal flails on one could blow up every mine and unexploded bomb in its path – without any risk to the operator. It even had a plough on the back – to make the field ready for planting once de-mining was complete.
The thing is, I’ve been in a few Cambodian minefields and never seen one of these machines in action. Instead there’ll be a small team of local people, dressed in body armour, painstakingly clearing contaminated areas inch-by-inch. As you can imagine, it takes a long time.
So why, I asked Mr Hitachi, weren’t there more of these machines in Cambodia. He smiled an embarrassed smile, then gave a one-word reply: “money”.