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Mine ban treaty reaches a critical stage

Cambodian landmine victims at a rehabilitation centre in Phnom Penh Keystone

The ten-year-old mine ban treaty, better known as the Ottawa Convention, still faces "huge challenges", warns a Swiss diplomat.

Jürg Streuli, who will be chairing the biannual meeting of signatories to the 1997 Ottawa Convention in Geneva from November 24, said states must honour their commitments to ensure the treaty does not lose momentum.

The Ottawa Convention, now signed by 156 states, was described in 2007 as “success in progress”.

Some 80 per cent of countries have now pledged not to produce, use or stockpile landmines. The global trade in the weapons has virtually ceased.

Just two governments – Burma and Russia – reportedly still use landmines. More than 40 million landmines have been destroyed since 1997 and thousands of square miles of contaminated land have been demined.

Yet despite progress over the past ten years, mines are still present in 70 countries and kill around 6,000 people a year.

According to the Swiss diplomat, the convention is now at a critical juncture and its objectives are still a long way from being met.

“Some countries still require huge demining work, others are very behind schedule, some don’t have a realistic idea of how badly contaminated their countryside is, while others are far from developing coherent demining plans,” he told journalists in Geneva last Monday.

For many communities in mine-affected regions this means limited or no access to fields, schools or means of communication, and a delay in reducing poverty levels, adds Streuli.

“Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal,” he said.

More time to clear

One of the Swiss diplomat’s major headaches will be to help resolve the problem of official state requests for more time to clear mine-infested land.

Under the Ottawa convention, countries with mines on their territory are obliged to clear and destroy them “as soon as possible but not later than [within] ten years”.

The first clearance deadlines are looming in March 2009. Yet 15 countries, including Peru, Ecuador, Senegal, Britain (Falklands), Venezuela and Denmark are unlikely to meet the deadline and are calling for ten-year extensions, which may be granted in “exceptional cases”.

During the conference, extension requests will be examined by a working group, then presented to other member states and voted upon in a plenary session.

“These requests represent a test for the convention,” said Sylvie Brigot, executive director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

While some countries have solid arguments as to why they haven’t met the deadline, others are clearly weak, she said.

“Will states have the courage to speak out against countries like Britain or Venezuela?” asked Brigot.

Tamar Gabelnick, ICBL’s director of treaty implementation, also bemoaned the fact that Latin American countries, including Nicaragua, Venezuela and Peru, had “banded together to request less stringent extensions”.

The ICBL argues that Britain and Venezuela should not be accorded an extension but instead be obliged to start demining operations and have to return next year and present a better dossier.

Member states should also grant shorter extension periods for other states and should be much more demanding in their recommendations and follow-up, she added.

Reducing stockpiles

Another key issue to be discussed in Geneva is the destruction of stockpiles.

Ten states have still not finished destroying their stocks and this year Belarus (3.4 million mines), Greece (1.6 million) and Turkey (2.9 million) missed their deadline for destroying their huge stockpiles. In the treaty it is not possible for states to extend their four-year deadline.

“Deadlines have not been respected but there are signs that they are making major efforts to catch up by next year,” said Streuli.

But Gabelnick was more critical: “This is setting a bad precedent; it’s a critical violation of the convention.”

“This convention was born from a civil society movement, coupled with cooperation from governments. It’s always been a different type of convention, about transparency and inclusion. But this time it was different, very much ‘we’re going to do this work behind closed doors and you’re not welcome thank you very much’. That’s frustrating and disappointing,” she said.

But the mine-action campaigner is keeping her fingers crossed for this “very, very important meeting” in Geneva.

“I’d like to stay hopeful that something positive will come out, as the groundwork has been laid and the analysing group took its work seriously,” she said.

“If it’s going to succeed, it’ll depend on state parties, as they’re the ones who have to vote and adopt the final report. We hope state parties will react. If they don’t we wonder what was the whole purpose of this Ottawa exercise,” she added.

This was echoed by Streuli: “Our position is that states have taken a legal commitment with the convention and so they have to respect it. We ask them to take it seriously.”

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

The overwhelming majority are civilians who trigger these devices years or even decades after a conflict ends. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, the majority of victims are under the age of 18.

Mine action programmes and the anti-personnel mine-ban treaty or “Ottawa Convention”, have led to a reduction in the annual number of casualties from an estimated 26,000 a decade ago to around 6,000 today.

Mine action is an integral part of Swiss peace and humanitarian security policy, and the government supports demining projects in more than 20 countries. Switzerland destroyed its last existing stocks of mines in 1999.

Switzerland has an annual budget of SFr16-18 million for its 2008-2011 mine action strategy.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining is one of its main partners, together with specialised United Nations agencies, NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The convention was adopted in Oslo, Norway, in September 1997 and came into force two years later. The treaty prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

Its purpose is “to put an end to the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines”. It has four main aims: universal acceptance of a ban on anti-personnel mines; destruction of stockpiled mines; clearance of mined areas, and providing assistance to mine victims.

A total of 156 countries have ratified or acceded to the convention. The convention commits contracting states to clear mined areas within ten years.

Several countries have refused to sign up to the treaty, including the United States, China, India and Pakistan.

The biannual conference of the Ottawa Convention takes place every two years in Geneva, cementing the city’s status as the capital of humanitarian and mine action.

This year’s meeting takes place from November 24-28 in Geneva and Switzerland is acting as president.

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