The latest on landmines

The latest on landmines McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 8, 2001 > The latest on landmines

The latest on landmines

North Americans first took notice of the landmines issue by watching TV reports of Princess Diana visiting Bosnian minefields or consoling Angolan children with stumps for arms and legs.

Photo Mine ban activist Susan Walker
PHOTO: Owen Egan

The small explosive devices, we learned, lurked in grassy fields and lay embedded in dirt roads of war-torn countries -- some "planted" during conflicts that ended decades ago -- only to be detonated by unsuspecting civilians who stepped on them.

The pressure for governments to outlaw the weapons and destroy their stockpiles culminated in 1997 with the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty in Ottawa. But that was just the beginning.

"The real work began when the convention was signed," said Susan Walker, government relations liaison for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), in a lecture sponsored by the Research Group in International Security.

"For me, it will mean nothing, it will be words on paper if we don't fully implement it, if countries don't comply."

So far, so good, says Walker. Twenty-two million mines have been destroyed in 50 countries. Of those 50, 27 countries have destroyed their entire stockpiles.

It is estimated that clearing one mine costs $1,000, while it costs a mere dollar to buy one on the black market. Mine clearance initiatives concentrate on training locals to use metal detectors, a lengthy process at best.

"The cost is prohibitive, but when you compare it to the socio-economic costs [of doing nothing], it's minimal." Walker doubts that advanced technological approaches to mine detection will become widely available anytime soon. "Do you think there is going to be enough political will to give very expensive de-mining technology to a country like Burundi?"

Most of the 139 countries that signed the treaty, she says, have abided by its rules, that include a total ban on the manufacture, trade and storage of landmines within four years of signing.

However, there are persistent allegations of treaty violations by Zimbabwe and Burundi, as well as the nagging fact that the U.S., Russia and China have not yet signed.

American resistance to the treaty can be traced back to when it was first being drafted in 1996, says Walker. The American delegation insisted that the U.S. be exempted with respect to Korea and that there should be a nine-year implementation period. The requests were refused and the U.S. has not been at the negotiating table since.

However, resistance in the early days did not come only from the usual culprits. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) argued that they should focus solely on development and humanitarian issues and warned that campaigning to ban landmines was meddling in political-military affairs. Any perception of taking political sides could tarnish their privileged neutral reputation, that allows many NGOs to offer aid to affected civilians during conflicts.

"Refugees are sitting in the middle of politics," said Walker. "You don't have to choose sides, but it's naïve to say this is only a humanitarian issue."

Walker was one of 11 ICBL activists who shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on raising awareness and getting governments to rally behind the cause.

The turning point came in October 1996, when preliminary meetings in Ottawa between NGOs and governments ended with a startling public challenge by Canada's former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy. He called on all pro-ban states to return in a year with a signed treaty.

"Axworthy shocked the world," related Walker. Many diplomats were upset at not having been forewarned about the audacious challenge. But Axworthy's move paid off; the movement to ban the weapons gained terrific momentum.

The treaty became binding international law on March 1, 1999.

"It is a framework for a mine-free world," said Walker.

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