Reaching an international consensus on banning landmines was a difficult road to travel. Along the way, it received a substantial boost from personalities like Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and the actress Angelina Jolie. But any deal was often held back by politicians, who were easily bullied by their militaries. But persistence and commonsense won out, and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty was eventually signed 15 years ago.
Since then, though, doubts have arisen about its effectiveness.
The Arab Spring was a talking point last week at a major landmine convention in Cambodia, with representatives from 158 countries attending. The meet heard an international chorus of concern over the fresh use of landmines, and delegates left amid complaints that Israel, Libya and Syria had been deploying antipersonnel mines, along with Burma, a long-standing offender, while the United States continued to drag its feet on joining the movement.
Belarus said destruction of its stockpile had been delayed until 2013. Cambodia, a country’s whose legacy from 31 years of war made it the tragic darling of the cause and the cradle of the mine ban movement, also sought an extension on the clearance of mines from its soil.
Despite this, groups like Human Rights Watch say the treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, has made strong progress towards establishing a mine-free world.
“It’s very encouraging that more and more countries continue to embrace the movement to ban landmines,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “And that impressive progress is being made in landmine clearance and stockpile destruction.”
Finland and Somalia announced they would join the two newest members South Sudan and Tuvalu and sign up to the treaty. Turkey declared it had destroyed a stockpile of almost three million antipersonnel mines, winning itself a standing ovation. Burundi and Nigeria declared their mine clearance obligations had been completed – Burundi achieved this three years ahead of schedule.
Prominent at the conference was Song Kosal, 27. She was just five when she lost her right leg to a landmine. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming Cambodia’s most outspoken anti-mine campaigner, or from taking part in a beauty contest.
Her dream of a “mine-free world” was summed up in her opening address at the conference as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) said that landmines and explosive remnants of war caused 4,191 new casualties in 2010, including more than 1,000 deaths.
It was good, she said of the conference, but added that too much of the meeting was focused on Afghanistan and Libya, with too little time dedicated to funding.
“We still have a lot to do. We need more money to remove the land mines and we need more money to help the survivors,” she said.
From a personal perspective, Song Kosal captured the hearts of many, retelling her stories of being a child with one leg, unable to play alongside the other kids in the playground.
“They treated me very well, people at the conference were very close to me and I’d like to see all the other survivors treated in the same way.”
Cambodia remains among the world's most heavily mined countries. Phnom Penh now says it won’t rid the country of landmines until 2020 after missing the 2010 deadline. However, observers doubt even 2020 is a realistic target for a country that already has about 44,000 victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war who survived with horrendous injuries.
Estimated costs have priced de-mining activities for Cambodia at $500 million for the next decade.
Cambodia’s funding shortfalls prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to warn demining needed to be accelerated as he urged donors to donate and non-members of the convention to sign up. That list includes 38 states, among them the United States, Russia, China, India, Vietnam and Singapore.
“We’ve largely succeeded in stigmatizing this coward’s weapon, but antipersonnel mines continue to claim too many lives and limbs in Cambodia and elsewhere years after they were laid,” said Goose.
Human Rights Watch noted the United States hasn’t used antipersonnel mines since 1991, during the first Gulf War, it hasn’t exported them since 1992, or produced them since 1997. It is also the biggest donor to mine clearance programs around the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama has also initiated a comprehensive landmine policy review after the Bush administration reversed policies initiated by former President Bill Clinton that would have had the United States signing up to the treaty by 2006.
However, the world’s most powerful country still stockpiles millions of antipersonnel mines for potential use.
“The United States needs to stop sitting in the back row as an observer in Mine Ban Treaty talks,” Goose said. “The U.S. needs to conclude its landmine policy review, join the rest of the international community that has rejected this weapon, and play a positive leadership role.”
His sentiments were echoed by Song Kosal, who urged countries like the United States, China and Vietnam to sign on.
“I am grateful to the U.S.; they give a lot of money. However, there are still around 30 countries who have not yet signed, if the big countries sign then the others will follow.”