Five years after an unprecedented alliance of governments and human rights groups signed a major international treaty to ban landmines, 20,000 people a year are still killed or injured by these deadly weapons.
The United Nations-backed Mine Ban Treaty (MBT), which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, is one of the most popular international agreements ever. It has been signed by some 150 countries and ratified by 141. And from the outset, Belgium has been one of the agreement's strongest supporters.
Back in 1990, Belgium became the first country to stop producing antipersonnel mines and it completed the destruction of its stockpiles in 1997. “Belgium was, and continues to be, at the forefront of the campaign to ban landmines,” says Annelies Vanoppen, communications manager for Nobel prize-winning Handicap International Belgium.
In December 1997, an unprecedented alliance of governments, civil society groups and international organisations, such as the UN and the Red Cross, oversaw the birth of the MBT in Ottawa, Canada.
The so-called ‘Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of antipersonnel mines and on their destruction' was immediately signed by 122 countries. Two years later, on 1 March 1999, it entered into force.
To crown this success, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which includes Handicap International's ‘Mine Unit' in Belgium, received a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in the same month. Today, there are only 47 countries that still do not back the Mine Ban Treaty.
Back in 1990, Belgium became the first country to stop producing antipersonnel mines and it completed the destruction of its stockpiles in 1997. But unfortunately for the treaty's suporters, these refuseniks include some of the world's most powerful states, among them are Russia, China and the USA. And most of the countries in the volatile and heavily mined Middle East have also not yet signed up.
After Ottawa, Belgium continued to lead the way in the crusade against landmines. “Belgium was the fist country to introduce the treaty into its legislation and helped to lobby other countries in the EU and internationally to do the same,” Vanoppen explains. In recent years, it has been lobbying very hard to convince two countries currently lining up to join the European Union to respect the MBT.
Estonia has not yet signed the treaty, while Poland still needs to ratify it. Belgium funded anti-landmine campaigns to the tune of €4.5 million in 2002. Additionally, it attended, headed and organised a score of conferences and events.
Mining corporate pockets
Handicap International Belgium organises the annual European Gala For Landmine Victims. This year's event takes place later this month and it is set to be a pretty swanky affair. Belgian Development Minister Marc Verwilghen will welcome guests to a plush dinner at Le Plaza, one of Brussels' poshest hotels, where he will oversee an auction of creations made by some of Belgium's finest artists.
“We expect to raise €100,000 from this year's gala evening. Last year, we managed to raise €65,000,” Vanoppen says. “The increase is mainly due to a growing interest from corporations,” she adds. Although well-off individuals can buy tickets, the gala is essentially aimed at the business world.
The proceeds of the event will go to Handicap International projects for landmine victims in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. “The American embassy has shown a strong interest in the gala. It is remarkable in light of the announcement they recently made that they would continue to use antipersonnel mines,” Vanoppen admits.
US refuses to play ball
Washington dropped a bombshell just a few days before the MBT celebrated its fifth anniversary. On February 27, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Lincoln Bloomfield, said that the so-called ‘smart mines', which deactivate themselves after a set time, would still be used by the US military after 2010.
He did however say that the army would phase out older types of mines as soon as possible. “We'll be the first to end the use of persistent [or dumb] landmines, both… antipersonnel and anti-vehicle,” he said. Bloomfield also announced that the US budget for demining assistance would increase by 50 percent.
According to the US State Department, these commitments demonstrate that the country's humanitarian and military goals are “fully compatible”. One does not have to be achieved at the expense of the other, Washington argues.
However, the ICBL and many others reacted with shock to Washington's recent announcement. They warn that smart mines are no miracle solution. “They can still pose unacceptable risks for civilians, still cause new mine victims, and the clearance task will still be time-consuming, costly and dangerous for deminers,” says Stan Brabants of Handicap International Belgium.
Jody Williams, ICBL ambassador and co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, said in a recent press statement that, “the US announcement casts a sinister shadow over our commemoration of the progress made globally since March 1999 to eradicate antipersonnel mines.”
Stephen Goose, executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch also condemned Washington's decision. “This new landmine policy is not just a gigantic step backward for the United States, it is a complete about-face,” he fumed.
Indeed, in 1994, the United States was the first country to call for the ‘eventual elimination' of all antipersonnel landmines, which set in motion the chain of events leading to the Mine Ban Treaty.
The 27 February announcement reversed a decision the Clinton administration made in 1998 to give up the use of all antipersonnel mines and join the treaty by 2006, if the Pentagon could find a suitable alternative.
The MBT will survive
While some people have expressed their worries about the impact of the US decision on the treaty, campaigners are confident that the MBT will not be derailed. “Some countries are asking, if the US doesn't sign, then what is the value of the treaty,” observes Vanoppen.
“The treaty has gained too much momentum and this has put the US, and other non-signatories, under increasing international pressure,” she adds.
Despite all the ruffling of feathers, 2004 is still an important year for landmines, because the Mine Ban Treaty is up for its first review under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Nairobi at the end of the year. The move will give some much-needed extra momentum to the agreement.
This is necessary because the greatest fear of landmine campaigners is that, as Vanoppen puts it, “after five years of the Mine Ban Treaty, interest in the issue will diminish and politicians will say it's time to move on”.
With 82 countries still affected by some 200 million mines produced in the last 25 years – Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Angola and Egypt are amongst the most heavily mined – and approximately 20,000 dead or injured annually, the pool of damaged lives, societies and economies is not diminishing.
That is why Handicap International and others are trying “to keep the issue in the public eye by organising awareness raising campaigns,” notes Vanoppen.
With additional reporting by Khaled Diab
An edited version of this article appeared on Expatica in March 2004.