Is the Ottawa Treaty Still Relevant?

By Paul McCarthy | Country Program Manager, APOPO Mine Action Cambodia

Paul McCarthy assesses the impact of the treaty on its 20th anniversary

20 years ago I was serving in the British Army when I heard the news that the Mine Ban Treaty had been signed by 121 countries at the treaty conference in Ottawa on the 3rd of December, 1997. This was a very personal moment for me as I had previously worked clearing mines as part of the UN in the Balkans and during this period I experienced a landmine accident that was to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Now better known as the Ottawa Treaty, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, has been signed by 162 countries. The Ottawa Treaty has been instrumental both in the global approach to ridding the world of one of the most insidious weapons known to man, and in raising awareness of the plight of communities that are affected by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.

Over 40 million landmines have been destroyed by state parties signed to the treaty, and 143 of them no longer hold a stockpile. This represents an outstanding rate of compliance. Most importantly, the number of new mine victims has fallen. The ICRC has found that where the convention’s norms and requirements are being respected and implemented, the annual number of new mine victims has dropped significantly, in some cases by two thirds or more.

The treaty has two aims. The first is to compel the signatory country to destroy its landmine stockpile and to cease any further landmine production, therefore rendering it, and its customers, unable to carry out warfare with this weapon. The second aim is for the country to plan its landmine contamination within a decade from signing. Since that first signing ceremony in 1997, 30 state parties have completed article 5 of the treaty with the support of the global community and operators like us. The last to make this announcement was Mozambique in 2015, a success in which APOPO played a significant part, becoming a preferred operator by the national demining institute of Mozambique.

By signing the Ottawa Treaty, a country makes a commitment not just to its own people, but, in the case of landmine producers, an obligation to a global population of people mostly not involved in the reasons for, or the actions of, conflict. I say this because whatever the arguments for continuing to produce landmines, the tragedy is that their intended use is very often abused or misapplied, at terrible cost to innocent lives. This can be simply through the opaque world of global arms trade, or, more commonly, because after landmines are laid, they very often do not get cleared when the conflict is over. In the case of the countries in which we work, landmines lie hidden, forgotten and still active even decades on, until an unfortunate person or animal treads on it. What I myself saw on that fateful day in the Balkans, is not something you would wish on anyone, let alone the children who account for around 30% of global landmine casualties. This fact alone is good cause to ban all landmine production overnight, not to mention the decades-long terror and hardship caused to communities living close to these hidden killers. I wonder how many policy makers from the countries that have not yet signed have actually encountered these accidents or the difficulties that affected, and usually desperately poor families face in these contaminated areas.

For myself the Ottawa Treaty remains hugely relevant. In the last twenty years the use of landmines has significantly dropped because of it, and most of the non-signatories have export or transfer moratoria in place to stop the trade. The treaty stands as an inspiration in a sometimes-cynical world, and as acts a safeguard to stigmatize the open use or production of landmines, making it more likely that the ban will become universal. Perhaps more pertinently, the Ottawa Treaty acts as an incentive for both the mine contaminated countries, and the global mine action funders, to work harder to bring about a mine free world, the original goal being 2025. For myself, knowing the extent of the contamination that remains in countries like Cambodia and Afghanistan, or the vast number of countries with mild to medium landmine problems, I feel this goal is optimistic.

Yet we should definitely not give up. 30 state parties have completed article 5 of the treaty and significant mine clearance activities are taking place in most of the remaining contaminated states.

But two things need to happen on the way to a mine free world. Firstly, the global community needs to understand that this problem is not going away without their support. Landmines will continue to lie hidden unless cleared or set off. Contaminated countries that face this problem, usually economically challenged ones, will continue to be a draw on the global economy with difficulting in contributing, and a few are vulnerable to becoming less stable. In the long run, it is indisputable that clearing the world’s landmines will result in a better future for the global community.

Secondly, the mine action sector needs to coordinate and work together. In comparison to our peers, APOPO is not a large organisation, but we have an effective technology that is proven to speed up mine action. I call on other operators to come and talk to us, discuss how we can integrate with (and, I would emphasize, not replace) their technology and methodology.

My hope is that these two actions will happen sooner than later, whilst the Ottawa Treaty remains as the beacon to guide us towards this glorious end.