Opening photo: A Danish Demining Group deminer carefully extracts a landmine from the side of the mountain in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the Danish Demining Group
By Stephanie L. Pico
Imagine yourself as a 6-year-old student walking a well-traveled path in your community. You get distracted and veer off by one small step, and your life forever changes as you step on a hidden landmine left over from war decades ago. Your leg is now amputated, your future and status in your community are forever altered. Imagine yourself as an instructor for displaced persons returning to ISIS-ravaged Iraq, explaining to families that their schools, dolls, and baby blankets may be booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to cause further insecurity and death.
Alternatively, imagine a small village near a weapons and ammunition storage site, where years of neglect, poor security, and unsafe storage practices make it relatively simple for drug trafficking gangs to obtain the arms they need to continue terrorizing the local population while keeping their country mired in violence and instability.
The Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) helps countries address these challenges to advance U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities across the globe.
“We address the harmful effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons. In effect, reducing the fuel for new fires sparked by stockpiles of excess, poorly secured, or otherwise at-risk conventional weapons that threaten peace, inhibit political stability, and stand in the way of prosperity,” said Deputy for Programs Jerry Guilbert, who manages the team of 21 program managers, assistant program managers, and advisors.
In the wrong hands, small arms and light weapons fuel political instability and violence. More advanced conventional weapons, such as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), pose a serious threat to global aviation. Aging munitions stockpiles may also explode, devastating nearby population centers. Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) endanger civilians decades after conflicts have ended. All of these threats are addressed by the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction (CWD) program—the world’s largest—which has provided more than $4 billion in assistance to more than 100 countries since 1993.
PM/WRA partners with other U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD) and USAID, and with NGOs, international organizations, educational institutions, and private sector contractors to implement its CWD programs to help conflict-affected communities recover. They each provide unique solutions to improve the quality of life for communities and individuals, such as landmine removal, land surveys, life-saving prosthetics, mine risk education to full communities, stockpile security and facility upgrades, and MANPADS identification training to border security officials.
PM/WRA oversees projects including the clearance of explosive hazards to facilitate urgent post-conflict stabilization assistance and remediating UXO remaining from prior U.S. military operations, particularly in South East Asia and the Pacific islands (a congressional imperative). Additional projects include protecting Central American weapons stockpiles from drug traffickers and criminal gangs fueling violence along the U.S. southern border and clearing IEDs emplaced by ISIS in Iraq and Iranian-supported groups in Yemen. CWD also supports broader U.S. foreign policy priorities such as countering Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, where PM/WRA supports humanitarian demining and safe destruction of aging munitions and building closer relationships with governments vulnerable to Chinese influence.
While the pandemic has temporarily paused program monitoring and evaluation visits, PM/WRA’s program managers normally travel to the field to ensure implementing partners adhere to their grant or contractual obligations and meet international operational standards. These partners invariably comment that the United States is the only CWD donor nation to send its staff regularly on oversight visits. This level of quality assurance ensures the Department maximizes the return on U.S. taxpayers’ investment.
“When I arrived in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2009, I had no idea that it would lead me to managing CWD programs,” said PM/WRA Program Manager for East Asia and Pacific Ethan Rinks. “My Peace Corps service focused on agriculture. But that experience working with coffee farmers and family farms galvanized my belief in how important safe land use is for so many families around the world. Following the Peace Corps, I joined the PM Bureau Front Office as a staff assistant in 2012 and was naturally drawn to PM/WRA’s work. I joined PM/WRA in 2016 and shortly thereafter, on a program oversight visit to Albania, visited a family’s olive grove. The United States had funded UXO removal so this family could begin re-cultivating their land and resume their livelihood. Seeing their successful olive oil business, I again realized the importance of land and the ability to use it safely—not only for local development but to sustain a family. Those experiences are why I do what I do and why I continue to enjoy this work.”
WRA also houses the Interagency MANPADS Task Force (MTF). The MTF helps countries reduce their excess MANPADS stockpiles, better secure those MANPADS they retain for national defense and prevent MANPADS acquisition by non-state actors. To date, MTF programs have eliminated more than 41,000 at-risk MANPADS and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, which pose a similar threat if used to attack civilian airliners. The MTF works closely with PM/WRA’s Program Management team, the intelligence community, DoD, and the aviation safety/security sectors to globally coordinate MANPADS destruction and physical security and stockpile management.
PM/WRA also plays a leadership role on several conventional weapons policy issues. For instance, WRA leads U.S. participation in the United Nations (U.N.) Program of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, and is providing the U.S. expert to the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Ammunition.
“U.S. leadership at the U.N. and other international fora help ensure that the outcomes of multilateral instruments are practical and lead to positive change in the field that we are negotiating without piling on additional, unobtainable obligations,” said Deputy for Policy Steven Costner.
PM/WRA also supports the Office of the Legal Adviser in international humanitarian law and related initiatives on the use and development of conventional arms and lethal autonomous weapons, including for meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and multilateral discussions about the protection of civilians.
In a day’s work, the U.S. taxpayer can be proud to have supported at-risk communities and individuals to attain a better quality of life, securing vulnerable stockpiles of conventional weapons, and assisting in strengthening U.S. national security globally.
For a full overview of PM/WRA’s programs, examine its 20th edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” April 5.
Stephanie Pico is a public affairs officer in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.