Photo above: Policy officer Dorinda ten Brinke (left) and Director Nina Seecharan (right) during a field visit

'The first time I stood in a minefield in Iraq was a sobering moment. It looked exactly like the land around it. You couldn’t distinguish safe from dangerous ground. So living here means being under immense psychological pressure 24 hours a day.'

'It’s a privilege to be able to give people back their land...and a safe life.' Nina Seecharan is the Country Director for Iraq of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that clears landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war. MAG also provides information and advice to tens of thousands of civilians, raising awareness of the problems and promoting safe behaviour. NGOs are non-profit organisations that are not part of government, but aim to exert influence over policy. Often they represent specific interests in relation to welfare, development or environmental protection.

Between 30 million and 300 million mines

It is estimated that there are between 30 million and 300 million mines in the ground worldwide. Landmines and unexploded cluster munitions pose an enormous threat to civilians. They also cause personal and economic hardship as they render large areas unsuitable for building and agriculture. Even after a conflict has come to an end, people are still unsafe. Help from the international community is often required to restore permanent stability to a country, such as Iraq, where a large-scale mine clearance programme is being carried out.

Seeing with your own eyes

The Netherlands is one of the largest donors to mine clearance programmes. Each year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives around €20 million in subsidies, including via the Humanitarian Mine Clearance and Cluster Munitions Programme, through which the Netherlands finances four organisations. Humanitarian mine clearance policy officer Dorinda ten Brinke saw just how valuable that commitment is during a field visit in Iraq. ‘Two Kurdish men told me that their village had been full of mines and explosives. One of them had even lost a child to a mine. It wasn’t safe anywhere. But now they have houses and livestock and they are growing vegetables. I drove through an area where children were playing even though they were still finding mines there. While we work for stability and reconstruction at our desks in The Hague, the true impact is only brought home after you see it with your own eyes.'

'Mine clearance has been high on our country’s agenda for years'

Legacy of 40 years of conflict

Nina Seecharan: 'The Netherlands’ contribution in Iraq may be even more important because Iraq is one of the most heavily contaminated countries in terms of landmines and other explosives. That’s the legacy of 40 years of conflict. The situation is particularly dire in the north, along the border with Kurdistan. Moreover, the 250,000 Syrian refugees and more than three million internally displaced Iraqis may be unaware of the hidden dangers when they enter unfamiliar areas. Then there’s Daesh, who often use improvised explosive devices, which complicates our clearance operations enormously. Nevertheless, our approach is bearing fruit. In northern Iraq, since starting operations in 1992, we have cleared mines and other explosives from 96 square kilometres of land. That’s about 14,500 football fields. As a direct result of the 2012-2016 Humanitarian Mine Clearance and Cluster Munitions Programme, we have been able to return over two square kilometres of land to the population, directly benefitting over 20,000 people. They are able to cultivate crops and graze livestock, and their children can play in safety. They are no longer living in fear. That’s precisely our aim.'

Appropriate policy

As manager of the Dutch mine clearance programme, Dorinda ten Brinke advises the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. This is a role she shares with senior Iraq/Syria policy officer Tim Kreuk. ‘Mine clearance has been high on our country’s agenda for years,’ said Mr Kreuk. ‘Of course, we adapt policy to the circumstances on the ground. In Iraq, for example, the problem of improvised explosives has become much worse since Daesh. We advised the Minister to release more funds for mine clearance, and that has been done. Dorinda has excellent contacts with the NGOs, and through my contacts with the Iraqi authorities I know where the situation is most urgent. This is how we work together to make a country safer.’

Broad approach to international peace and safety

After a war ends, the Netherlands supports the reconstruction efforts of the countries affected. Mine clearance programmes like the 2012-2016 Humanitarian Mine Clearance and Cluster Munitions Programme are good examples of the kind of assistance provided. When it comes to international peace and safety, the Netherlands takes a broad approach. This includes tackling problems that can precipitate wars, such as competition for raw materials, poor governance and social inequality. As a member of the international community, the Netherlands participates in international missions and uses its influence whenever possible to prevent and end conflicts.