Interview with Rae McGrath

Morag Naledi McKenzie (Botswana, AC 10-12)

Rae McGrath is a former engineer for the British Army, where he worked for eighteen years. After working in the British Army, Rae worked in Sudan for Band-Aid before working as a food distributor in Darfur, it was at this time that Rae decided to stay working in the field. In 1997 and 1998 Rae was working in Afghanistan and it was here where a Treaty banning anti-personnel mines was drafted and ratified in 1999. In 1997 Rae accepted the Nobel Peace Price for MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and their Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. Rae continued his non-profit work and in 2008 a new treaty was written named Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) banning cluster munitions. This was ratified in 2010. Currently, Rae is working for Save the Children as a Senior Programme Manager in Emergency Response Personnel.


How did you get involved so actively in the campaign against anti-personnel land mines?


I think people always expect a long thought out answer to this question, but after eighteen years in the army, I got involved in non-profit work completely by accident. I was initially interested in becoming a journalist, however, one night, in 1985, I got a call from Band-Aid (A charity program founded in 1984 to raise money for famine relief) asking me to go to Sudan. The following day, Save the Children (An international children’s charity based in the UK which supports both emergency and long-term relief and development projects) called me and asked me the same question. It was then that I realized that the military had sent out a list of ex-military who would be useful in the field. I took the Band-Aid job working in Cross-Desert-Convoys in Sudan. When I was in Sudan I met the guy who was sorting out food distribution in Darfur, and he had become ill. This was at the time when Darfur, an area the size of France, was in a civil conflict. I decided to take over the job from the ill guy as no one else wanted to do it, and I think that whenever nobody wants to do a job, you should try it. I worked with a Sudanese group, and it taught me about myself, and how much the group I worked with meant to me, as without them, I would not have been able to do the job. I definitely made mistakes, but I still feel as though I did a good job, and what I learnt, was that I was no longer interested in journalism. I started planning retrospectively.

How did the initial campaign against landmines begin?


At then end of 1997, beginning of 1998, I was working in Afghanistan. The Soviets were still in occupation, and I was working on pilot programs. The pilot programs would be installed when the situation in Afghanistan reached a level of peace where support in the rural areas would become necessary. However, this level of peace has still not been reached. The pilot programs were designed to work with the community to understand and rebuild lives. What we realized when working there was that landmines were a huge issue. This realization came when a pilot program recognized that a bridge needed to be built over a river as tractors were going over the river and harming the irrigation. The pilot program was working on building the bridge as many of the people in the community were living in refugee camps in Pakistan, and so the remaining people provided labour and support. On the day on which the bridge was built, the people of the community had tea on the bridge with us, but the next day, the tractors were still going over the river and not using the bridge. When we asked them why, they responded saying that the road on the other side of the bridge was laden with landmines, and they could not possibly go onto that road. When we asked them why they had not told us this, they responded by saying that they hoped we would clear the landmines. I began to realize how big of a problem land mines were, when I heard stories about children from the villages, herders, who would go off with the goats, and never come back. It was assumed that they had stepped on a landmine and died.

Do you think that the act of the victim triggering their own death makes the landmines more unjust than many other war weapons?


Yes, when I was in Solomon Kell Valley we found the remains of a young boy. He had stepped on a butterfly mine which had blown his foot and ankle off, but which had not killed him, but rendered him unable to move. He had died alone, bleeding out. I believe that no child deserves to die like that. It is a human injustice, not only because he died alone with no family around him, but because of the injustice of landmines. It is a death that is unknowingly triggered by the victim.

When I was working in the army, I had learnt to clear mines and I had figured out a solution. I was going to train people to clear mines in that local area-this was the early stages of what was to come. After this program I joined the UN for the first and last time. I am a natural troublemaker, and a natural educator about things that I consider to be wrong, I guess I am one who likes to talk. I realized that the UN was training people to clear mines, but they were not being trained properly, at least not for the mines in Afghanistan. I think that the UN hired me to shut me up, a sort of hire the poacher as a gamekeeper kind of philosophy. It was here where I helped to change aspects of the training to make it suitable for disarming mines in Afghanistan. It was here that I met Syed Akhtar, a good friend and someone who helped me start the Mining Agents Planning Agency (MAG) in order to conduct a minefield survey of Afghanistan. The survey was needed because although the military were clearing mines, they were clearing mines to make safe paths to pass through the country. We wanted to create the survey to clear the whole landscape in order to return a safe landscape to the community.

On the 1st of January 1990, we cleared the first bomb path on the road with the UN clearance team (ATC) in Kunar Province. I realized around this time that I was not cut out to work for the UN. This is not to say that I don’t support the UN, I am just not compatible with them. I think the UN is an essential body, but I am a steamroller. I cannot and will not wait to do something tomorrow that I could do today. The new project was sponsored initially by Norway and Sweden, and it was here that we conducted the largest mine survey of Afghanistan and it was terrifying. The land was imbedded with mines. This project turned into MAG (Mines Advisory Group), the largest most effective humanitarian clearance program at the time. After setting this group up, I went back to live in the UK, in Cumbria. It was here that I set up an office. In 1996 I decided to leave MAG, much to the both the surprise and anger of my colleagues. MAG was extremely successful, as it had moved to seven countries, but I felt that my time there was over. I believe that it requires a tunnel-vision dictatorship to set up a small organization and move it to becoming a huge organization. If I had set up something that was unsustainable without me, then it should collapse when I was to leave. I do not believe in the “guru factor”. That is to say that there are directors of companies who become stuck in being praised by their employees and essentially become gurus. I do not believe in having the feeling of ownership of a company, because once you believe you own an organization you know it is time to move on, because you quite simply do not own it. I was also missing the fieldwork, and I realized that whilst MAG was doing great work, we were clearing mines when mines were still being created and laid. I realized that an overall ban was needed. I also decided that it was time for my wife, Debbie, to start her own work. We moved, and I took various jobs as consultants whilst trying to get back into fieldwork. I am not one who cares about job titles, I do not think it matters if one moves down the job title list, what matters is the job itself. In fact, I think that moving down the title list helps one gain perspective and maturity, and of course, it is a challenge.

In 1997, we managed to create a treaty banning the use of anti-personnel landmines. the treaty was ratified in 1999, in fact, it was quite easy to pass as the military utility of anti-personnel mines was disproportionate and did not do a military job, as it left civilian casualties after a military had vacated a country. The impact of the treaty was more impressive than the treaty itself, as it stigmatised landmines so that countries that did not sign the treaty would be putting themselves in diplomatic danger by using the landmines. Countries such as America realized this, and so companies manufacturing anti-personnel mines stopped manufacturing them, as there was no longer a great demand. In fact, America has not used landmine drops in Afghanistan or Iraq due to the pressure of civil society. This set a precedent, and in 2008 a new treaty to ban the use of Cluster Munitions was signed and ratified in 2010. This meant that two weapon groups had been banned by 2010.

Do you believe that you can go on banning weapons in this way until there is no more legal usage of weapons?


No. You cannot ban one weapon at a time.  Even if this were attempted, companies would just continue to make new weapons and go through loopholes in order to manufacture them – it would be a never-ending cycle. This may be a very unpopular belief, but I am of the opinion that disarmament is not the solution. People are the solution. We do not kill people because we have weapons; this just makes it easier; we kill people because it is socially accepted. We must make it harder to kill people, harder to go to war. This will not come from disarmament, but from changing the way people think. People must realize the responsibility that comes from war and killing people. Therefore, the country or countries going to war must accept full economic and social responsibility to respond to the needs of victims after they have left the country in which they are occupying. People must analyze what they set out to achieve and why. In terms of war currently, we have made ourselves as evil as our opponents, to attack someone because they have attacked you does not seem like a legitimate reason. It is much like the slogan used in the Vietnamese war “fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity”; it does not solve anything. The path for mediation must be opened. In terms of the Afghani war, they never asked to be saved from anything, we have come to save them without their consent, and this will not make anyone better off. Afghanistan will always be behind, and it is because man will always think he has the right to go to war if he has the means. It is not a case of the availability of weapons, but the idea that man needs weapons. That is something we have to change.



If you could describe yourself in six words, what would they be?


I don’t think I could ever say anything in six words, but…if I were to try. I suppose that I believe in human justice above everything else, I value human justice. I also greatly value democracy, but I think democracy loses value when it is imposed, it must be sought.

 -United World Colleges Student Magazine-

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