Reviving the Grassroots Movement to Ban Landmines

The tsunami hit Sri Lanka, scooping away wide portions of earth and killing more than 200,000 children, women, and men, all while I and others were safely celebrating Christmas. I had recently returned from Kenya where I represented Friends Committee on National Legislation at a global conference to review the international treaty to ban landmines. While there, I met landmine workers from the Indian Ocean Basin. My first thought when I heard about the tsunami was: What has happened to my new friends? My second thought was: Scattered landmines!

The giant wave washed away the ominous red roadside signs warning pedestrians to the presence of hidden landmines along the coastline of Sri Lanka. While I have not yet heard of anyone who has fallen victim to dispersed landmines, I am sure there will be casualties. It won’t be long before a relief worker or a child walks through the mud that covers these unmarked mines.

Landmines were laid in Sri Lanka during the government’s two-decade war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil. A cease-fire was signed in 2002, but the legacy of the conflict remains. Long after guns fall silent, antipersonnel landmines continue to threaten the lives and limbs of civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been maimed or killed by antipersonnel landmines globally. The International Campaign to Ban Land-mines has estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 new casualties caused by landmines each year. That means there are some 1,500 new casualties each month, more than 40 per day, at least two per hour.

The good news is that more than three-quarters of world nations have agreed to ban landmines. The bad news is that the United States is not one of those countries—and the current administration is actually taking steps away from supporting a global ban. I joined representatives of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines from 80 countries and 135 government delegations in Nairobi, Kenya, this past November 29 to December 3 to mark the fifth anniversary of the entry into force of the Mine Ban Treaty.

The Nairobi Summit on a Mine-Free World, as the meeting was named, was designed for governments to review progress and decide which actions they must take to build a mine-free world. Governments in Nairobi came to realize, through the constant urging of mine survivors and civil society organizations, that the work is not complete. To understand a bit more about where we are today, it is useful first to review how the global treaty to ban landmines was developed and signed.

The Movement to Ban Landmines

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) first highlighted the global humanitarian catastrophe caused by landmines in the aftermath of World War II and again during war in Vietnam. As the organization charged with guarding the laws of armed combat contained in the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross and its officials sensed that weapons that could not distinguish between the boot of a soldier and the foot of a child were inhumane and should have no place in modern societies. Unfortunately, their calls to stop using indiscriminate weapons came at the height of the Cold War, when the superpowers who controlled the global agenda prioritized humanitarian issues distantly behind averting nuclear war and maintaining their hegemony. This global threat to the lives and limbs of millions was ignored for decades.

While governments were largely unaware of the global mine problem, the devastating consequences of landmines were more than apparent to those who were forced to wear prosthetic limbs, family members of those who have died, veterans, and organizations working in post-conflict zones. But governments were not listening to these groups, so someone else needed to speak out.

The movement to ban landmines grew out of the authentic experiences of several civil society organizations operating in mine-affected areas. After seeing and having to deal with the devastation caused by antipersonnel mines on people to whom they were sending aid, a handful of organizations started to speak out. In 1992 six organizations (Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group, Physicians for Human Rights, and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation) came together and formally founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Within a few years, the stories and concerns expressed by them were joined by hundreds of other concerned organizations and thousands of individuals. The issue of landmines was starting to get the attention it deserved.

The momentum created by these organizations proved unstoppable. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, ICBL member organizations, including FCNL and the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), met with governments, mobilized grassroots support, and applied public pressure. ICBL was so successful that the Campaign and its coordinator, Jody Williams, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their work in bringing global attention to the landmine issue. On December 3, 1997, the movement reached its peak when 121 countries gathered in Ottawa to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use, production, and export of antipersonnel mines and sets deadlines for their destruction.

The fact that a small group of civil society organizations achieved so much in so little time represented a revolution in global politics. A decade after the core group of relief and human rights organizations met to discuss what they could do about the landmine issue, there is now a clear international norm against these indiscriminate weapons. Banning an entire class of weapons was not new; the world had already banned certain types of bullets, biological weapons, and laser weapons. What was revolutionary about the mine ban movement was that the ban was not spurred from voices within government but from the grassroots. The movement illustrated to the world that when concerned individuals get together in the name of humanity, they can succeed.

Where are we today?

It would be easy for governments and activists to claim victory and move on to other issues. That was my concern and the concern of others who attended the Nairobi conference at the end of last year. The Mine Ban Treaty and the mine-ban movement have yielded impressive results in the past five years. Since 1999, 152 countries have agreed to ban antipersonnel mines, 62 million mines have been destroyed, and there has been no acknowledged trade in antipersonnel mines. Landmines have become stigmatized throughout the world, causing states to refrain from using them—or at least to find creative ways to justify their use.

While it is clear that the Mine Ban Treaty and the ban movement have saved lives, daunting challenges remain. Forty-two countries, with a combined stockpile of over 180 million antipersonnel mines, remain outside the treaty. Among them are three of the five UN Security Council permanent members (United States, Russia, and China). In addition to use by states, ICBL has identified at least 70 armed non-state actors that have used landmines since 1999. Armed insurgents such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka routinely used landmines in their country’s internal conflict. The mine ban movement must find a way to universalize the treaty and engage non-state actors who use landmines. Unless these groups are brought into the discussions on humanitarian issues and persuaded to renounce the use of landmines, these horrific weapons will continue to pose a threat.

What about the United States?

One government that was conspicuously absent from the proceedings in Nairobi was the United States. To the chagrin of mine-ban advocates the world over, the United States has not signed the Mine Ban Treaty and continues to reserve the right to use and produce antipersonnel mines.

Following a review of its policy that started in 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced a new U.S. landmine policy in February 2004 that reversed many of the positive steps the United States has made over the past decade to eradicate antipersonnel mines. The new policy abandons the goal of the previous administration to join the treaty by 2006 and instead allows the military to retain mines indefinitely. The United States is now the only government in the world to not have a goal of banning antipersonnel mines at some time in the future.

Why would the United States stand in the way of a life-saving treaty banning weapons that it does not use? The shameful failure of the United States to lead the world on this issue, at the same time that it holds itself up as a beacon for freedom and human dignity, does not make much sense—especially since, even though the United States has not joined the treaty, it has for the most part acted as if it has. It has not used antipersonnel mines in war fighting since the Gulf War of 1991, it has not exported mines since 1992, and no antipersonnel mines have been produced in the United States since 1996. In addition, all NATO allies of the Unites States have banned these weapons, and many military leaders in the United States agree that with all the weapons at the disposal of U.S. troops, antipersonnel mines are not needed to win a war.

Part of the explanation for this discrepancy is that many in the U.S. military continue to see antipersonnel mines as an essential war-fighting tool and do not want to see them banned. The traditional mission of the U.S. military is to engage and destroy an enemy’s armed forces in the shortest feasible time with the fewest possible friendly casualties. The Pentagon is reluctant to give up any weapon, even of limited military utility, that might under some circumstances save the life of a U.S. soldier.

However, in the United States where we have civilian control over the armed forces, military leaders should not decide policy. A main function of a constitutional democracy is for the people to decide how and by whom violence is employed. When a specific weapon or military tactic is deemed unacceptable by the majority of the people, politicians must stand up to the military and do what is right. Policymakers in the United States have failed to muster up the political will to confront the military and take away these indiscriminate weapons.

Another reason why the Bush administration refuses to sign the Mine Ban Treaty is that it has an aversion to international agreements of any kind. Whether it is the International Criminal Court, Kyoto Global Warming Protocol, or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Bush administration seems to believe that the United States is above global standards of behavior and should have no restrictions on what it does. Other countries not party to the treaty, such as India, China, and Israel, attended the Nairobi Summit while the United States refused. This arrogant form of U.S. exceptionalism has hindered the ability of the country to reach its policy goals. Many of the issues facing the world are not problems confined to certain states; rather, issues of terrorism, disease, global warming, and humanitarian catastrophes are global problems. International agreements are the only way to address these issues. An agreement that covers the entire world is the only way the world can break free from the scourge of landmines.

If exceptions can be made for the United States, why not for others? As long as the United States, with by far the most powerful military ever known, continues to insist on its right to use these indiscriminate weapons, other nations with far weaker armies are going to insist on their right to use them too. By failing to work toward accession of the Mine Ban Treaty, the United States may well encourage mine-using countries including Russia, India, and Pakistan to continue laying landmines without fear of condemnation. Rather than exercising the responsibility to protect civilians, U.S. policy protects the predators. The world expects more from this country, and so do its citizens. The United States should be a leader on humanitarian issues, not impeding progress. It is time to stand by the side of the hundreds of thousands of landmine survivors worldwide and ban these indiscriminate weapons.

Toward a Mine-Free World

Now, in early 2005, it appears unlikely that the Bush administration will sign the Mine Ban Treaty any time soon. But we need to remember that nobody believed in 1990 that three-quarters of the nations of the world would come together to ban landmines. Concerned individuals must continue to express outrage. The reason why successive administrations have adhered to the treaty is because landmines are stigmatized and any use would lead to a large public outcry. The Bush administration and Congress must be continuously reminded that the public is watching and any use, production, or export of antipersonnel landmines would not be accepted by citizens. They must be convinced that a global ban on antipersonnel mines is in the interest of humanity and therefore in the interest of the United States.

As long as people continue to be killed or maimed by these "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion," the mine-ban movement must continue. Friends and concerned individuals should write letters to their members of Congress and to the president. Urge them to reconsider the benefits of U.S. accession to the treaty and of joining with the majority of the world’s nations to end the senseless violence caused by antipersonnel mines. Beyond communicating with policymakers, the grassroots movement in the United States needs to be revived. Many people think that landmines are no longer an issue. People need to be educated and motivated to act.

The Christmas weekend tsunami and the added danger caused by landmines should prod the world to act more quickly on this issue. How many more victims will there be before we muster up the political will to do something? Unlike humanitarian tragedies like the tsunami, the global landmine threat is human-made and can be rectified by human actions. All that is needed is the sustained will of citizens and policymakers to make it so. I am going to continue to work hard, and I know that one day we will end the scourge of landmines. I hope you will join me.

Scott Stedjan

Scott Stedjan is a legislative associate for Friends Committee on National Legislation and coordinator of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines.