Twenty years ago this week, history was made.
On December 3-4, 1997, the Mine Ban Treaty opened for signature at the National Conference Centre, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.
As Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy put pen to paper and affixed the first signature to the landmark treaty, thousands gathered in Ottawa—state delegates, throngs of media, NGOs, grassroots peace activists, and even a bus-load of landmine activists who had traveled several continents to get here.
That day, they accomplished what had felt nearly impossible just 14 months before—an international treaty that entirely banned a weapon known to cause indiscriminate physical and psychological harm to civilians around the world.
Sometimes referred to as the Ottawa Convention—though officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction—this treaty is arguably one of the world’s most successful.
In the mid-1990s, roughly 26,000 people were victims of anti-personnel landmines every single year—killed or permanently maimed, their lives altered in an instant.
Twenty years later, 162 states have become treaty signatories; more than 51 million stockpiled landmines have been destroyed; 27 countries and 1 territory once plagued by contamination have declared themselves mine-free; and production by the majority of the world’s landmine producers has ceased.
Just as importantly, the Treaty has helped make landmines one of the most stigmatized weapons in the world. At the end of the Cold War, landmines were an accepted component of virtually every state’s military arsenal. Fast forward to today, and international norms have developed that discourage any country—signatory or not—from using them. In fact, many non-signatory states (the U.S., for instance) are in de-facto compliance with the Convention.
This groundbreaking instrument also has broader significance for the ways in which it shaped future arms-control activism.
Back in 1996, most countries favoured working through traditional UN disarmament channels. But as negotiations within these structures (i.e. the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) were resulting in diplomatic stalemate, Canada did the “un-diplomatic” thing. It stuck its neck out—proclaiming that by December of 1997 Canada would hold a conference to sign a new treaty banning landmines. And it would do so by bypassing conventional channels altogether.
This alternative (and, at that time, unusual!) diplomatic model broadened the scope of participation to include civil society in the negotiations. While not an easy sell for many governments, this innovative process, Axworthy recalls, gave “participants…equal standing at the table regardless of their position. Mine victims sat next to ministers discussing strategy, reflecting an emerging sense of partnership between government and civil groups.”
Within this context, NGOs and landmine victims—mobilized under the banner of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (a Nobel Peace Prize winner!)—made their case, providing compelling documentation on the devastating humanitarian impacts these weapons had.
In the end, this alternative process achieved an outright ban on a weapon that countries had once argued were indispensable. It was a game-changer.
One only need to look to later treaties on cluster bombs (2008), small arms (2014), and, most recently, nuclear weapons (2017), to see how NGOs, governments, and civil society have come together again and again to put humanitarian concerns at the center of disarmament conversations.
In Ottawa this week we did just that. On Monday, December 4, NGOs gathered with government officials, diplomats, de-miners, and landmine survivors to commemorate the success of the Treaty. The conference, aptly-named “Unfinished Business: The Ottawa Treaty at 20,” explored the “wins” of the last twenty years, but it also threw down the many challenges that remain.
Let’s make no mistake—there is much business to be finished. Landmines are not an issue of the past.
With well over 60 countries still contaminated, people can’t travel freely, return home post-conflict, farm their land, or regain their livelihoods (check out the Landmine Monitor for annual statistics).
And as we heard this week, the world is facing a new landmine emergency. The number of people killed or injured by anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices has increased in recent years, hitting a ten-year high in 2015.
As organizations like Mines Advisory Group have reported, the regional conflict in Iraq and Syria (not to mention Ukraine and Myanmar) has resulted in a scale of contamination not seen for decades. Improvised explosive devices and locally-manufactured mines in these contexts are “sensitive enough to be triggered by a child’s footsteps but powerful enough to disable a tank,” MAG said at the conference.
All of this within the context of a global decline in funding.
Thankfully, on Monday Canada announced almost $12 million in funding for mine action projects in places like Iraq, Syria, Cambodia, Laos, Ukraine, and Colombia.
While a far cry from the $62.8 million Canada contributed at its peak in 1997, this funding is crucial. As the Landmine 2025 campaign is pushing, global support for clearance must be re-energized if signatories are to achieve treaty commitments.
In other words, even as we celebrate the Treaty’s remarkable achievements, we must also recognize that much work remains. Let’s finish the job!
By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Director