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GLOBAL: Mine Ban Treaty steadily gaining ground

JOHANNESBURG, 16 September 2009 (IRIN) - It was both audacious and ambitious, but unlike similar international agreements where the original ire cooled, the Mine Ban Treaty has survived for a decade and remains active, relevant and effective, and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Since its adoption, the landscape of Africa - the world's most heavily mined continent - has changed, as have government attitudes to landmines.

Before the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, commonly referred to as the mine ban treaty, came into force on 1 March 1999, landmines were laid with impunity; cheap yet horrifying weapons, the use of which was often justified as self-defence, despite their calamitous consequences for civilian populations.

Sown in their millions throughout the world by national armies, militias and other non-state actors, landmines did not distinguish between soldiers, peasant farmers, women drawing water, or a six-year-old's curiosity. The limbless and mangled bodies became commonplace in states as far apart as Cambodia, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and a host of the world's other nations.

In the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique the numbers of mine victims were so vast they became a social class, "the mutilados" [the mutilated ones].

The military minds that designed anti-personnel mines did so with a variety of aims: some were manufactured to be efficient killers; the purpose of others was purely to maim, so as to burden soldiers with caring for their wounded colleagues, thereby depleting the size and resources of a standing army.

When this thinking collided with a civilian population, during and in the aftermath of war, they tore into the remainder of society's fabric. Unlike the soldiers, the mines laid during Africa's liberation wars and civil wars did not return to the barracks when peace came.

They remained in the field, mostly unmarked and unmapped, placed at or near strategic locations, such as bridges, road verges and water sources, a deadly hidden legacy.

"More than ten years on, some of those terrifying images have begun to fade," Reuben McCarthy, a conflict prevention and recovery specialist at the UN Development Programme, told the Third African Experts Conference on Landmines, in Pretoria, South Africa.

"Not because the issue has lost traction, but because concerted and focused action is being undertaken to eliminate this threat across the world," he said as the three-day conference closed on 11 September 2009.


Stan Brabant, head of the policy unit at Handicap International, an NGO working with vulnerable populations and landmine victims, told IRIN: "Almost all states comply with the treaty - except a few pariah states such as Myanmar - even when they did not sign it. Having them, too, formally join the treaty would be nice, but is maybe not strictly needed, since anti-personnel mines are so stigmatized."

The only three African countries not to embrace the treaty are Somalia, which is in the throes of a long-running conflict and has been without any cohesive system of governance for almost two decades; Libya, current chair of the African Union, and Egypt.

In 2007 Libya's President Muammar al Gaddafi condemned the treaty as "a faulty and flawed instrument" that should be reviewed, but acknowledged its positive aspects, such as mine clearance, victim assistance, and rehabilitating affected areas.

On the other hand, he deemed destroying stockpiles of mines and prohibiting their manufacture and use unacceptable, as the weapons "are the means of self-defence of the weak countries", a position shared by Egypt.

In 2007 Libya joined 18 other states, including Egypt, in abstaining from the UN General Assembly resolution to promote full implementation of the mine ban treaty.

While other conventions have failed to maintain their initial impetus, the mine ban's longevity is seen as both a result of its origins and the narrow focus it adopted - to get rid of all land mines and cease future production.

A 1997 visit to Angola, at the invitation of the International Red Cross, by the late Princess Diana - at the time acknowledged as the world's most photographed person - is often seen as a watershed event in the campaign to ban land mines, giving a boost to what turned out to be the final stretch of achieving the treaty, but it was just part of the long haul to getting the signatures.

Brabant, who worked on mine clearance and risk reduction in Afghanistan and Cambodia between 1994 and 1996, told IRIN there were a "series of elements", including the end of the Cold War, the growth of international NGOs, the personalities involved, as well as support from Canada and several "small countries" such as Austria, Belgium and Norway, that sealed the deal.

Success and shortcomings

As an integral member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Brabant said, "From our side, our involvement in the land mine campaign came from the outrage expressed by our field work and, like several other people, I saw my work on the campaign [to ban land mines] as a natural continuation of my field work."

Peter Herby, head of the mines and arms unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Pretoria conference there was a "lot to be proud of in the past ten years", including adherence to the treaty's bi-annual meetings, but cautioned against taking further progress for granted. "If this convention does not succeed in Africa, it does not succeed," he said.

The treaty could now boast 156 member states, 70 percent of former producers accepted the terms of the convention, and the new use of land mines had been stigmatized and was rare, he noted.

There were now 152 states without land mine stockpiles, 49 African Union (AU) countries did not have any land mine stocks, except those used for training purposes, and 42.2 million mines had been destroyed, of which AU countries accounted for 817,000 units.

The weaknesses included a lack of victim assistance, a slowdown in states joining the treaty - although several non-member states were open to becoming signatories - and the failure of some states to meet deadlines for stockpile reduction and mine clearance.

The shortcomings in adherence to the treaty will be addressed at the convention's second review conference in Cartagena, Columbia, from 30 November to 4 December 2009.


Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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