Landmine ban rooted in civil society

More than 100 countries have pledged to sign an international treaty banning antipersonnel mines. September's Oslo Conference was marked by a high degree of cooperation between governments and non-governmental organizations on the one hand, and U.S. reluctance to sign on the other.

By Celia Tuttle | 1997-11-01 12:00:00

AN INTERNATIONAL treaty banning anti-personnel (AP) landmines will be signed this December in Ottawa. The treaty and the process by which it was arrived at are benchmarks in disarmament history. It is a short, clear and concise disarmament treaty which deals with the victims of the weapons it bans; it is subject to no reservations and there are no geographic or other exceptions. It is supported, if not by every country, then by countries in every region. Its content was arrived at by the sustained and concerted efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies concerned about the social and economic devastation caused by AP mines, working closely with like-minded governments. Unlike other disarmament treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, it does not allow signatories to withdraw during times of war. It is a disarmament treaty whose very existence is rooted in an intensive, global grass-roots effort, strongly supported by the will of people around the world.

For decades AP mines have plagued civilians, killing and maiming long after wars are over - they claim an estimated 26,000 victims each year. Though nobody knows the true numbers, it is believed more than 110 million mines lie scattered throughout some of the poorest regions in the world and another 110 million are stockpiled. For decades militaries have used AP mines with little consideration of their negative long-term effects on civilian populations and governments have allowed them to do so. No more. Today more than 100 countries have pledged to sign the ban treaty this December, including former producers, users and exporters and most members of NATO.

The final negotiations around the ban treaty took place in Oslo, Norway during the first three weeks of September. More than 89 states participated in the Oslo Conference and another 31 sat as observers. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), various UN agencies and regional bodies also participated as observers.

Many of the states gathered in Oslo had been involved in or following discussions for an AP mine ban for months, through a diplomatic initiative widely known as the Ottawa Process. This initiative began at an international conference convened by Canada in October 1996, an historic event in several respects. It was the first Conference to bring together advocates for a total ban and governments to discuss strategies and actions intent on achieving one. Arising from this unprecedented government-NGO collaboration, was a conference declaration committing participating states to ensure "the earliest possible conclusion of an international agreement to ban AP mines." The declaration was strengthened further when Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, invited all states to sign a negotiated ban treaty by December 1997. A time-frame for action had been introduced for ending a humanitarian crisis of devastating proportions.

The Ottawa Conference was quickly followed by a series of meetings and conferences throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe to build national, regional and international political support for the ban treaty. In December 1996, 157 countries voted in favor of a UN Resolution calling upon all States to conclude a legally-binding international prohibition on AP mines as soon as possible. Only 10 states abstained from the vote and none voted against the Resolution. By year's end, the first draft of the ban treaty, developed by Austria with input from international NGOs and agencies, was circulated. Treaty-text negotiations began in Austria in February; in late April in Germany verification and compliance issues were discussed followed by further meetings on the draft text in Belgium two months later. Throughout these and other meetings, NGOs and governments worked closely in the lead-up to Oslo and the final treaty-text negotiations.

The intent of the Oslo Conference was to finalize the treaty text for signing in December; a text which NGOs had long insisted contain no exemptions, no reservations and no loopholes. After months of delay and pressing for negotiations to take place in the UN Conference on Disarmament, the United States, Japan and Australia joined the negotiations at the last minute. China has never taken part in the Ottawa Process and Russia, India, Pakistan and other producers and users of AP mines have sat as observers only. Arriving in Oslo with its domestic policy unchanged, the US insisted it would not endorse the treaty or sign it without specific changes to the text.

In the weeks leading up to Oslo, several governments, including Canada, said the treaty would be stronger with American support and US involvement could bring in major producing countries like China and Russia. Despite a strong resistance to US demands shown by other governments in the early part of the Conference, tensions increased dramatically in the days to follow. NGO fears that US demands would be accepted were alleviated midway through the Conference when Foreign Affairs Minister Axworthy said, "We must concentrate on the business at hand. Negotiations toward a treaty must be successfully concluded in a way that results in a clear and unambiguous ban." The minister also announced Canada would destroy its remaining stockpile of AP mines before the December treaty signing and urged other governments to do the same.

The minister's words notwithstanding, NGOs and citizens around the world raged against a 24-hour extension given the Americans just two days before the discussions were to conclude while delegates considered new US proposals. These included exemptions for continued use of AP mines in Korea and use of mixed AP mine and anti-tank mine systems; a nine-year deferral period before entry into force and the right to withdraw from the treaty with 90 days notice or in times of conflict. The extension sparked angry demonstrations in Oslo and elsewhere as it appeared the integrity of the treaty might be sacrificed at the last minute to accommodate US demands.

In the end, negotiators rejected the US proposal and held out in favour of a complete ban on AP mines. When talks resumed September 17, delegates required less than 30 minutes to adopt the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction. Of the 89 governments participating in Oslo, only six - Australia, Japan, Kuwait, Poland, the United States and Venezuela - are not expected to sign the treaty in December.

The text negotiated in Oslo is not perfect and it is not supported by all states, but it is a solid step toward the total eradication of anti-personnel landmines. The refusal by the United States to sign the ban treaty is not cause for celebration and it never has been. The cheering and the joy in Oslo were in recognition of those governments who refused to open up the treaty to exceptions which would render it ineffective. The atmosphere of celebration was because small states and middle-powers asserted their right to make decisions in their own interests and in the interests of the international community, despite tremendous pressure to do otherwise.

The ICBL maintained a strong presence throughout the negotiations and many NGOs and national campaign representatives, including members of Mines Action Canada, took part in a four-day NGO Forum, 7-10 September, to develop strategies and actions beyond the treaty signing in December. Campaigners identified strategies and actions to ensure the greatest number of signatories to the treaty and its early ratification. The roles of NGOs and civil society in monitoring, compliance and verification of the treaty were discussed. A series of workshops on mine action programs which include mine awareness and clearance; physical rehabilitation of the injured; socio-economic and physical rehabilitation of individuals and families and the reconstruction and development of mine-affected communities; and their integration into long-term development initiatives were well attended. Discussions on a range of issues from involvement of non-state actors in the ban treaty to promotion of mine-free zones and disability and human rights issues fed into an agenda for action beyond December.

In December at the Treaty-signing Conference, once again joint government-NGO discussions and workshops will further develop this Agenda for joint implementation at the national, regional and international levels.

The stigmatization of AP mines as a legitimate weapon of war has begun and its success lies in the will of civil society and the collaboration of governments and NGOs. There is no turning back. While the United States and other countries may not yet be ready to sign a total ban, already they are being swept along, slowly but surely, on the tides of change. In the last three years no known exports of mines have taken place by major exporters; US President Clinton has directed the Pentagon to find alternatives to all AP mines, even those in Korea, by 2006. A joint initiative by Canada and the UK at the upcoming Commonwealth Meetings in Edinburgh will focus on involving India and Pakistan in the ban process. Russia has indicated, though it will not sign the treaty, it supports its objectives and will look at other unilateral measures to promote them.

The treaty to be signed in Ottawa in December is only the beginning of the end. After it enters into force and long before AP mines have been removed or destroyed, these weapons will continue to create human suffering. We will need to make great efforts in the areas of mine clearance and rehabilitation of victims. The work ahead is intense and requires long-term commitment and the sustained partnerships of NGOs, civil society and governments to see it through.

Celina Tuttle attended the Oslo conference for Physicians for Global Survival, the Canadian affiliate of IPPNW.
Mines Action Canada c/o Physicians for Global Survival, 208-145 Spruce Street, Ottawa, ON, K1R 6P1. Tel: (613) 233-1982, fax: (613) 233-9028, e-mail:

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997, page 17. Some rights reserved.

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