Interview with Mr. Aksel Steen-Nilsen, Country Director of Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), Thailand
A comprehensive look into NPA's operations in the Asia Pacific
Thank you, Mr. Aksel Steen-Nilsen, for taking the time for this interview despite your hectic schedule. Due to your vast, expert knowledge as well as solid experience in the field of humanitarian disarmament, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you here today. As we start this interview, would you please introduce yourself and NPA for our readers?
I am a former officer from the Norwegian Royal Armed Forces, where I was working in different roles that covered landmine clearance and advanced EOD activities. I thought I could put my military experience to good, or maybe even better use in humanitarian mine action and disarmament context, and therefore joined NPA in 2001. Since then, I have held different roles within the organization and worked across various countries and continents, but for the last ten years mainly in Asia and the Pacific(s).
NPA is much more than just a traditional disarmament organization. It is a politically independent membership-based organization working in Norway and in more than 30 countries around the world. Founded in 1939 as the labor movement's humanitarian solidarity organization, NPA aims to improve people's living conditions and to create a democratic, just and safe society under the motto of “Solidarity in Action”. NPA clears landmines and cluster bombs left after war and conflict and has cleared one billion square meters of land and removed over 2 million landmines and explosives in more than 40 countries since 1992. NPA is also heavily involved in the advocacy work related to disarmament and have been instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Antipersonnel Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).
Demining is still inherently dangerous and challenging, be it military or humanitarian. Moreover, as non-state actors and terrorist organizations, e.g., Daesh, have started semi-industrialized production and planting of improvised landmines as well as IEDs, clearing efforts have become even more tedious. How does NPA combat these un-conventional challenges?
First and foremost, more than 99% of un-conventional items found and cleared are considered improvised landmines where the approach to clearance is very similar to that of conventional landmine clearance. The remaining small percentage is in general what we consider legacy IEDs. They are IEDs in the traditional sense (Booby trap buildings, roadside IEDs, etc.) that would normally be dealt with by security forces but are now found to be in a permissive environment, meaning that they are no longer 'in play' or targeting a specific operator. These are found to be in what is known as the 'humanitarian space' which can be in areas behind the conflict lines or post conflict. We ensure that staff has the training and qualifications to neutralize IEDs, regardless of whether they are dealing with improvised landmines or legacy IEDs. This, in conjunction with stringent SOPs that are constantly being updated and adjusted as new information becomes available in relation to the threats encountered, ensures that NPA can continue to work and combat these un-conventional challenges in a safest way possible.
NPA is generally having formal partnerships with national mine action entities in all countries where we are operating, and through these we also promote and advocate for further increased cooperation between mine and UXO affected countries in the region.
Effective demining takes regional efforts, clear communication, as well as multilateral cooperation. Could you please tell us how NPA effectively fosters regional partnerships to enable successful humanitarian demining operations in the Asia Pacific region? In the Asia Pacific region, we are fairly lucky because several existing organs foster regional cooperation and NPA is making sure to utilize these structures to its fullest extent, often entering into formal partnerships. In addition to this NPA is generally having formal partnerships with national mine action entities in all countries where we are operating, and through these we also promote and advocate for further increased cooperation between mine and UXO affected countries in the region. NPA will often bring national partners from one mine-affected country to another, where we see potential for exchange of experience and knowledge that our regional humanitarian mine action partners can benefit from. Could you tell us a little bit about NPA’s mine action and disarmament efforts in Cambodia in the past few years? Cambodia was the first county where NPA started its mine action and disarmament efforts in 1992. Already back then NPA had a preference for partnerships and of building national capacity, so when the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) was established as the national Cambodian clearance operator, NPA immediately entered into a partnership with CMAC. This partnership is still going strong today 25 years later, and we are in addition also a partner with the national mine action authority, Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA). In the past few years NPA has had its main focus on the challenge with all the unexploded cluster munitions that remains in the eastern part of Cambodia. In an effort to render the clearance operations of cluster munitions more effective and efficient than it had been for many years NPA Cambodia entered into a R&D project with the NPA programs in Lao PDR and Vietnam to develop what is now referred to as a Cluster Munitions Remnant Survey (CMRS). With this new survey method it was possible to much better identify areas with a cluster munitions remnant problem and making sure that clearance teams would be deployed onto the most contaminated areas from the get go. The CMRS method has now become the mine action and disarmament sector standard and is being used by all operators that work in cluster munitions clearance.
NPA started its activities in Thailand in 2000, and it’s still the only NGO to be received by the Thai Prime Minister in person. How has the organization’s role in Thailand evolved from the early 2000’s? And what developments do you see in the country's demining-sector? NPA was invited to come to Thailand and conduct a Landmine Impact Survey (LIS) in 2000. After the LIS was completed in 2001 NPA was not able to continue its work in Thailand due to lack of funding and therefore handed over all the results of the survey to the Thailand Mine Action Center (TMAC). After this NPA still kept in touch with TMAC and followed their demining work as it went along. As the international humanitarian mine action sector developed and especially with the introduction of the Land Release methodology NPA understood that Thailand could greatly benefit from some external assistance to modernize their working methods in humanitarian mine action and NPA was able to re-establish itself in Thailand in 2009. At that stage NPA focused mainly on Non-Technical Survey (NTS) in an effort to cancel inflated, previously perceived, landmine contaminated areas from the LIS and to assist Thailand to develop a full set of national mine action standards. Since re-establishing itself in Thailand NPA has worked closely with TMAC in capacity building the humanitarian mine action units in Thailand so they could develop their own procedures to conduct high-quality NTS and land release practices. From 2020 NPA began to focus most of its efforts towards Technical Survey (TS) to reduce the established confirmed hazardous areas as much as possible before clearance takes place. As Thailand is approaching its goal of becoming mine-free by the end of 2023, more and more of the demining resources will have to be deployed on severely mined areas. Good TS techniques can assist in making this happen in the fastest and most secure way! Increased use of mine detection dogs and mechanical demining assets are two of the tools NPA will promote profoundly in the next couple of years to achieve the landmine free 2023 goal of Thailand.
As you’ve also acted as an advisor to NPA in Myanmar could you share one of the key lessons learned from past mine action and disarmament efforts? The humanitarian mine action and disarmament sector in Myanmar is still fairly young as the country only gradually opened up to international demining actors in 2011. The intervention has not been overly successful so far due to the extremely complex and fragile scenario. Still, certain progress has been made since the start, and maybe most importantly there seems to be a steady increasing trust and understanding from key national stakeholders and decision makers that they can learn and benefit from the international mine action community in Myanmar. The one key lesson learned to share from Myanmar is probably that one will have to be very patient and persistent to succeed in Myanmar. There are no short cuts and no possibilities to rush anything. This is probably a key lessoned learned for many different initiatives in Myanmar and one that it seems we will have to live by for quite some more time to come when looking at the most recent events in Myanmar.
What do you consider being some of the major challenges that NPA will likely face in the Asia Pacific region in its humanitarian demining efforts, 2021-2025?
There is a global initiative to make the world landmine free by 2025. While this is hardly achievable, it is still the ambitious goal of most countries with a landmine problem in the region. One of the major challenges to overcome is how to achieve sufficient funding for the sector, as the ambitious plans and strategies set out to achieve the landmine free 2025 goal requires substantial additional funding levels compared with what we see today. Another major challenge will be clearance of landmines in border-areas where there are still unclear border demarcation or even ongoing border demarcation disputes. As long as the involved nations have not agreed on the borderlines, it will be unclear and challenging to agree to who will have the jurisdictional responsibility to clear the landmines that are located within these areas. Even the action of having the landmines removed could be seen as a claim for having authority of that specific area, so to solve that challenge will easily become a jurisdictional minefield in itself, in addition to the actual minefield that requires clearance.
Let’s look into the future prospects in the demining-sector: What kind of developments; technological, policy-oriented or systems, would you like to see more of in the upcoming years to make disarmament and mine clearance operations more safe, efficient and timesaving?
There are always a lot of new developments happening in the demining sector, which we really appreciate. Although, these are often far from the game-changing developments, the constant, albeit slow stream of small improvements emerging on the market, is something we can still greatly benefit from. I would like to see significantly improved detection methods – systems that are able to more accurately, and from a safe distance, detect and identify unexploded devices with a high sense of precision. That could really make our life safer and at the same be both time- and cost-saving.
Aksel Steen-Nilsen is currently the Country Director of NPA in Thailand, Palau and Solomon Islands and acts as an advisor to NPA in Myanmar. Aksel has been a NPA Mine Action manager in 9 different countries on 4 different continents over the last 19 years. He is a practiced manager with solid experience in the field of humanitarian mine action and disarmament, including the tools of non-technical survey, technical survey, manual demining, battle area clearance, mine detection dogs, mechanical demining machines and EOD. Aksel has been instrumental in developing several of the methods and systems currently deployed by NPA in humanitarian mine action worldwide today. Aksel is a retired Major from the Royal Norwegian Armed Forces where he served for 12 years and holds a degree in Civil engineering from the Royal Army College of Engineering.