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Canada and the International Movement to Ban Landmines

Ottawa Process Points Towards a New Multilateralism

by Bob Lawson

The following was written by Bob Lawson who is Head of the Conventional Arms Section of the Non-proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Bob is not a Quaker but he has put a lot of energy into the campaign to ban landmines as a government official and we think his article describes particularly well events leading to the ban with particular emphasis on the exceptional cooperation between government and NGOs. The article was published in the November, 1997 issue of the Peace and Environment News and is reprinted here with the permission of the Peace and Environment Resource Centre.

Through the Ottawa Process culiminating in the landmines ban treaty conference this December, Canada is leading an unprecedented coalition of governments and international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in an exploration of new forms of multilateral diplomacy in the post-Cold War era. In pursuing their common objective - a total ban on anti-personnel mines, the source of a global humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions - this diverse coalition is reshaping the rules of multilateral diplomacy. The Ottawa Process is setting new standards for foreign policy activism in the pursuit of international disarmament and human security.

Destruction in slow motion

While anti-personnel mines (APMs) have been used extensively by military forces for decades, it wasn't until the early 1990s that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) war surgeons and NGO aid workers began alerting the world to the fact that this relatively obscure tactical weapon had mutated into a weapon of mass destruction - a weapon moving in slow motion, taking one victim at a time in almost every region of the world.

By the time the first comprehensive report on APMs was published in the early 1990s, it was clear that as many as 25,000 people were being killed or injured by APMs every year, the vast majority being innocent women and children. Experts estimated that there were at least 110 million landmines in 70 countries, most of them in the developing world.

APMs are inexpensive, costing (US)$3 each to produce, and easily deployed in large numbers. But their true cost is much greater. APMs render massive tracts of land useless for farming, settlement, or economic development, adding starvation, refugee flows, and poverty to the list of difficulties affecting countries struggling to recover from war. Mine clearance is a slow, dangerous and expensive business. It costs as much as (US) $800 to clear a single mine. The alternative is even more costly - clearing mines one arm or leg at a time.

NGOs call for a ban

NGOs were the first to call for a total ban on APMs. In the fall of 1991 the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and Medico International launched an advocacy campaign to coordinate NGOs pressing for a ban. By the fall of 1992 these organizations were joined by Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, the Mine Advisory Group, and Physicians for Human Rights to form the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

The international community had already reconized the potential for disaster caused by widespread use of APMs. A United Nations Diplomatic Conference, convened in 1977 to negotiate an additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention, had clearly recognized that the use of APMs should be restricted under International Humanitarian Law. While this 1977 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Landmines Protocol placed significant restrictions on the use of APMs, by the early 1990s it was clear that these restrictions were not reducing the damage APMs were doing to civilians.

The political terrain had shifted by the time the 54 states that signed the 1977 Protocol met in Vienna in the fall of 1995 to review its provisions. The Red Cross had launched a world-wide media campaign advocating a total ban on APMs. The ICBL, by then representing over 350 NGOs from 23 countries, used the Vienna meeting to launch sophisticated pro-ban public advocacy activities. Then-United Nations Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali publicly supported a comprehensive ban in his address to the review conference. However, despite the growing pressure for a total ban, what emerged from the CCW Review Conference were merely incremental improvements to the Protocol, which continued to legitimize the use of APMs.

By this time Canada had concluded that limited restrictions on the use of APMs would not be effective. On January 17, 1996, Canada announced its support for a total ban. It also declared a unilateral comprehensive moratorium on the production, transfer and use of APMs. Simultaneously, Canadian officials began to meet with NGO representatives and other pro-ban states to explore a new track of diplomatic action. At the conclusion of the final session of the CCW Review Conference in Geneva, Canadian officals joined representatives of the ICRC and the United Nations in announcing Canada's intention to host an international meeting in the fall of 1996 to develop a strategy for a comprehensive ban on APMs.

The Ottawa Process

The Ottawa Conference of October, 1966 entitled "Towards a Global Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines," was attended by 74 states and a wide range of NGOs. At the conference, ministers and officials shared plenary and workshop platforms with mine victims, parliamentarians, and NGO representatives. All participants in the conference were invited to contribute to an Agenda for Action to build political will for an APM ban. The real news of the conference was made during Minister Lloyd Axworthy's dramatic final speech when he invited states to work with Canada in negotiating a treaty banning APMs to be signed by December 1997.

What emerged from the Ottawa Conference provided the framework for what would become known as the Ottawa Process - an intense program of diplomatic and political activites aimed at negotiating and signing an APM ban treaty in little over 14 months. The driving force behind this process was a coalition of like-minded states and NGOs such as the ICRC and the ICBL. The initial core states included Austria, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Phillipines, South Africa and Switzerland.

Noticeably absent from the initial supporters of the Ottawa Process were all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Russia and China rejected the very notion of an APM ban. Although the United States, the UK and France were, in principle, supportive of a ban, they were openly critical of the Ottawa Process, arguing that this "coalition of the angels" would have little practical effect on the global APM crisis. Informed observers noted that these states shared a distaste for the Ottawa Process and its strategic alliance with the NGO community. These five states said they favoured negotiating an APM ban treaty within the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Decisions in this forum are based on consensus, giving each state an effective veto. A proposal for a ban would move forward only as fast as the slowest anti-ban state.

Canadian officials remained convinced that the secret to success would be to maintain Minister Axworthy's deadline for action, combined with a series of multilateral meetings during which NGO and media pressure could be brought to bear directly on

The Brussels Conference

On the eve of the Brussels conference in June 1997, the momentum behind the Ottawa Process was clearly growing. Over 70 governments had pledged their support for a ban treaty. Meanwhile the NGO communities in the UK and France had made an APM ban an election issue, with both the newly elected UK and French governments becoming supporters of the Ottawa Process. US officials promised that they would review their policies in July.

The centrepiece of the Brussels Conference was a political declaration that locked in commitments to the final stages of Ottawa Process (the negotiations in Oslo and the signing of the treaty in Ottawa in December). By the end of the Conference, 97 states had signed the Brussels Declaration. Including supporters who could not attend the conference, a total of 107 states joined the Ottawa Process.

In December, Foreign Ministers will meet in Ottawa to sign an APM ban treaty. In the 9 months between the Ottawa and Brussels conferences, over 100 states have become convinced of the need to ban forever an entire category of modern weaponry - an unprecedented achievement within the field of multilateral arms control and disarmament. This is even more impressive when one remembers that the Ottawa Process was the creation of a middle- power/civil society coalition working in the face of opposition from Permanent Security Council members.

Towards a new multilateralism

The success of the Ottawa Process highlights the potential for a new form of multilateralism which capitalizes upon the emergence of new sources of diplomatic influence in the post-Cold War era. International public opinion, transnational NGOs and revolutions in telecommunications and the mass media have eroded the traditional boundaries and prerogatives of diplomatic praxis. The coalition forged by Canada around the APM issue was successful in harnessing a number of these new sources of influence. The process provides a dramatically expanded diplomatic tool kit for officials developing strategies to influence key decision makers at state, regional and global levels. The Ottawa Process effectively combined public diplomacy efforts by key foreign ministers and senior officials with NGO-led civil society advocacy campaigns.

Multilateral diplomacy remains a contested terrain where middle powers such as Canada often have a home-field advantage. Canada's extensive experience with multilateralism provided a solid foundation upon which the framework of a dramatic and innovative diplomatic initiative could quickly be constructed. But while the Ottawa Process may have emerged as an ad hoc response to the need for immediate multilateral action, it will produce more than a much needed international treaty banning APMs. At a time when a growing number of global challenges require timely, and truly global responses, the success of the Ottawa Process holds out the hope that multilateral diplomacy will continue to evolve as a flexible and effective instrument of global governance.

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