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Landmines focus minds in Geneva

Every 20 minutes, somebody is killed or mutilated by a landmine. Keystone

A conference has opened in Geneva aiming to speed up the destruction of the world's landmines. The four-day meeting at the United Nations seeks to improve the implementation of the Ottawa Convention on banning these weapons.

Although three-quarters of the countries in the world have signed the treaty, they remain a deadly menace in many parts of the world – every 20 minutes someone is killed or injured by a landmine.

To help stem the tide, Switzerland has offered free to the international community a device that safely deactivates mines and other explosives from a distance. Swiss President, Adolf Ogi, presented the device in Geneva on Monday.

It has been tested in Bosnia and Kosovo for the last year and costs about SFr18 ($10), roughly the same price as a landmine. No one needs to touch the ordinance unlike usual clearing methods, which means increased security for mine-clearing personnel.

This sense of urgency is also reflected in the official theme of the gathering: Every Minute Counts. Even so, Switzerland regards implementation of the convention so far to have been a success.

«There have been few international conventions that have been ratified by so many countries in such a short space of time,» says Christian Faessler, Switzerland’s permanent representative to the UN conference on disarmament.

«This has led to a lot of stockpile reduction, and minefields have been substantially reduced. Many countries have stopped producing landmines. A lot has been done in a short time, but a lot more still needs to be done,» Faessler told swissinfo.

One hundred and five countries have ratified the treaty, and more than 30 more have signed it. Twenty-one countries, including Switzerland, have completely destroyed their stockpiles.

But there are some very important exceptions. These include Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan and India, all of which have failed to sign the treaty.

«This remains a very big hurdle,» Faessler says. «It’s our wish to bring those countries into the Ottawa Convention, and we’ll continue to talk to them and put pressure on them to achieve that.»

There are believed to be some 250 million landmines in arsenals around the world. How many have been left forgotten in the ground is anyone’s guess.

The Swiss diplomat is hopeful that there will one day be a world without landmines: «It’s difficult to put a timescale on it, but I believe it will happen.»

«Even those countries that still have landmines realise they are horrible weapons and are looking at other means to replace landmines.»

The speed with which public opinion has shifted on this issue is largely due to the work of non-governmental organisations, such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

«There is still a lot to be done,» says Elisabeth Reusse-Decrey, head of the Swiss Campaign against anti-personnel mines, which includes some 50 NGOs.

«We’re very disappointed that the USA isn’t taking part in this conference, even as an observer. So we will continue our work of pressuring and denouncing those who don’t sign up to the convention,» she told swissinfo.

She adds that one of the main challenges is persuading rebel groups to eschew the use of these devices.

«There has to be a separate process for these groups,» Reusse-Decrey says. Last March, the Swiss Campaign launched such a process by convening a conference for so-called Non-State Actors – armed rebel groups.

Several of these signed the Geneva Appeal, which calls on them to «ban the use of anti-personnel mines, and respect humanitarian norms, participate in demining work, help the victims of landmines and allow inspectors to visit.»

One of the cruellest aspects of the landmine is its ability to wreck innocent lives many years after a conflict has ended. Virtually everyone in Cambodia, for example, knows someone who has been killed or maimed by a landmine.

«One of the things that has to be addressed is defining what a landmine victim is,» says Paul Vermeulen, the head of the Swiss branch of Handicap International.

«An amputee is clearly a victim. But so are people who can’t grow their crops because the irrigation system has been mined, or the child who cannot get to school,» he told swissinfo.

Vermeulen says many demining operations around the world are affected by a lack of resources: «Demining is not necessarily that expensive, but in Afghanistan, deminers are sent home for two months because they can not be paid. We could achieve good results if the funds were there. It’s a problem of political will.»

A wide variety of cultural events has been organised for this week to raise public awareness about the problem.

Handicap International has organised an exhibition of works by well-known photographers taken in the countries most affected by landmines. These photographs are accompanied by texts written by famous writers, including Dario Fo, Zoe Valdes, Mia Couto and Claude Duneton.

Daniel Berset, the artist who created the famous broken chair sculpture outside the UN building in Geneva, will place a red chair with a broken leg along the Quai Wilson every 20 minutes. By the end of the conference there will be a red line of some 350 chairs.

A giant hourglass, built for Geneva’s Millennium celebrations, has been temporarily installed outside the UN. It too will be turned every 20 minutes. There will also be a massive “Skateboarders against Landmines” rally on Wednesday.

«This has been the first time in history that public revulsion over a particular weapon has led to an international convention banning it,» says Paul Vermeulen, head of the Swiss branch of Handicap International.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR