Interview with Erik Tollefsen and Frida Larsson

Head of the Weapon Contamination Unit & CBRN Adviser at the ICRC

Picture: Internal Capacity Building

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It takes action in response to emergencies and promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law.

The weapon contamination unit (WEC)

The weapon contamination unit provides the ICRC with operational expertise on landmines, explosive remnants of war, stockpiles, and small arms. The unit is responsible for activities to reduce the impact of weapon contamination on people. These may include field assessments on weapon use, risk education, clearance, and information gathering. The unit directly implements activities in the field, advises and provides technical support to other units within the ICRC, and plays a lead role within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

What kind of activities does the weapon contamination unit do to reduce the impact of CBRNe weapon contamination on people?

The Weapon Contamination Unit (WEC) is comprised of three sections: conventional, non-conventional, and medical. These three sectors are gathered under a one unit umbrella and work in close cooperation with one another. WEC strives to provide a safe space in war zones so that ICRC delegates can operate safely. For example, in the case of a CBRN incident, we strive to determine areas where ICRC can continue its operations whilst keeping the risk to staff within acceptable levels, to enable crucial ICRC activities, such as supplying clean water and providing medical care. To do this, we must make sure that it is safe for our delegates to operate.

To be able to best respond to a deliberate or accidental release of chemical, biological, or radioactive agents, preparedness is essential. It is challenging for international humanitarian workers to always be at the right place at the right time. Therefore, we focus on local capacity building. We train and educate first responders and local hospitals to have the knowledge and proficiency on how to reduce CBRN impact even when we are not there. Moreover, to have local partners and national authorities prepared, our delegations around the world carry out Risk Awareness and Safe Behavior education on a daily basis.

Also, we put a big emphasis on prevention. We conduct risk assessment and risk mitigation operations to increase the overall knowledge of risks involved in an area contaminated by weapons. For example, when people who has escaped war is able to return to their hometown, now affected by conventional and non-conventional weapons, ICRC offers help by making them aware of the risks and how to live with the risk in a relatively safe manner.

How has the Covid-19 crisis complicated your work in war zones? What is the unit’s response to it?

Our usual way of work, which is to meet our partners face-to-face, has been hindered by the pandemic. To reach the affected population safely and efficiently, our Risk Awareness and Safe Behavior related work has been distributed through media platforms and leaflets. By doing so, we have ensured that ICRC does not subject people to a potential risk of contracting Covid-19 by gathering them in one place.

Besides, at the beginning of the epidemic, there was an overflow of information from all sides. Thanks to our subject matter specialists, ICRC was able to make decisions based on evidence and facts. Our knowledge helped us get the most appropriate PPEs for people, and the information we distributed was welcomed by the institutions we support.

What are the most common forms of chemical weapon contamination? How does the unit respond to these challenges?

Most often, the accidental release of Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TIC) is the most common incident and not a deliberate release of chemical agents. TIC incidents happen when armed conflicts take place in an urban context. It happens because warring parties do not pay enough attention to dangerous chemical plants and accidentally hit the storage facilities. TICs are often stored at a high-pressured liquid state, making them easily rupture and leak when storages vessels are hit.

When there is a TIC incident, combatants may be able to protect themselves thanks to training and equipment. However, the most vulnerable people, like the wounded, elderly, and children, have neither the means to protect themselves nor the ability to escape the danger. The number of casualties amongst this group and the fatality rate for civilians is likely to be much higher.

In order to prevent this from happening, we try to have a dialogue with conflicting parties and tell them why using certain weapons in such a context can be a problem. Also, we try to reduce the presence of TIC in conflict zones. Where such preventive measures are not appropriate, we adopt other protective measures, such as for example, establishing decontamination capability in nearby hospitals.

20 years have passed since the Ottawa Convention banning antipersonnel landmines was adopted. However, we continue to see victims of landmines. What are the remaining challenges? How does ICRC deal with the non-state actors?

I (Mr. Tollefsen) was an EOD officer at a peacekeeping force in Lebanon 30years ago, which was before the Ottawa Convention was signed. No matter how many mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) we cleared, even more explosives were littered on the ground. We saw an ever-increasing number of people injured.

After the mine ban convention came into force in 1997, not just the use but also the stock, transfer, and sale of antipersonnel mines dropped. Along with the decline in the usage of landmines, accident rate, fatality rate, and injury rate all dropped dramatically. I believe that the mine ban convention is a huge success. Ottawa convention, along with the Oslo convention that bans the use of cluster munitions, tremendously reduced the sufferings of civilians.

However, I do acknowledge the fact that there are remaining challenges. Usually, weapons themselves are not the problem. The indiscriminate use of weapons is the problem. Landmines, IEDs, and ERWs, are often blind. They do not distinguish armored vehicles from school buses. To solve this problem, we try to tell warring parties to abide by the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). When it comes to non-state armed groups that challenge IHL, we persuade them by making them understand that IHL also applies to non-state armed groups. Also, we tell them that they are also dependent on the support from the local population and that they will not win support by injuring them.

How does ICRC help countries affected by the explosive remnants of war?

Again, building sustainable capability is key. We usually get invited by sovereign states or parties to the conflict. We then help them assess the problem they face and do the analysis. At the initial stage of the talk with our partners, they often ask us to get high-tech equipment. However, it is often difficult to bring in high-tech equipment because of the international sanctions and restrictions that are in place. There is also a budget issue. However, the biggest problem with high-tech equipment is its unsustainability. High-tech equipment requires high maintenance efforts, which makes it less sustainable. In fact, equipment that requires low maintenance, easy to repair, and has a long shelf life can be more sustainable and, therefore, better for them.

The most efficient and sustainable way to build capacity is to help agencies with proper mandates, implement standard operating procedures (SOPs) thoroughly. When ICRC designs a project, we always have an exit strategy in mind. The agencies must be autonomous when we leave the context. Therefore, we try to guarantee that agencies such as armed forces, police, emergency services, and civil protection know what to do even when we are not with them.

Any final remarks?

CBRN incidents in war zones do not attract much attention as cities are already destroyed, and society does not function properly. However, paying more attention to preventive measures that may seem small can save many lives in an area with many potential CBRN risks. The importance of prevention and preparedness can never be stressed enough.

Erik Tollefsen is the Head of the Weapon Contamination Unit of the ICRC. In addition to his background as a manager, Erik’s experience and expertise are in weapon systems and their deployment, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, detection and sensor systems, counter-IED, humanitarian demining and ballistic protection.

Prior to starting to work for the ICRC, Mr Tollefsen has experience from the humanitarian sector for nine years with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining and seven years with Norwegian People's Aid. In the service of these organisations, Erik carried out missions in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Chile, Ukraine, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Angola and Israel, among other countries and territories.

Prior to this, Erik served in the Norwegian Defence Forces as an Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO). In this capacity, he was posted to UNIFIL (Lebanon) and UNPROFOR (Bosnia Herzegovina), during the conflict in the early 1990s) as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer. He studied pedagogics at the UiT - The Arctic University from 1993 to 1997.

Frida Larsson is trained as an CBRN and Conventional Munition Disposal (CMD) specialist. Before joining the ICRC, she worked in the Swedish Armed Forces as an Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) at the Swedish CBRN Regiment.

Her first mission in the ICRC started in 2017 when she was offered to be a Weapon Contamination (WeC) delegate in the ICRC Delegation in Ukraine. She has since worked on two additional missions, one in Geneva and one in the Syrian Arab Republic, before taking the position as CBRN Adviser for the WeC unit in 2019. The CBRN Adviser’s main task is to lay the ground for the global WeC strategy when it comes to the type of response to be adopted when responding to and/or prevent incidents or consequences caused by the release of CBR and/or Toxic Industrial Material (TIM). Other tasks involve capacity building of internal assets and external partners ability to respond to the incidents mentioned above.