Every time I visit the United Nations (UN) Office in Geneva, I cannot ignore that huge rust-coloured iron chair that stands on the Place des Nations across the UN gate with the flags of its 193 member states.
This colossal structure symbolizes humanity’s opposition to the use of indiscriminate weapons such as landmines and cluster bombs. No diplomat, tourist or passer-by can miss the message, as the chair stands on three legs, the fourth having been blown off. For the shattered leg, the aim is to show that as long as landmines continue to be used in international armed conflict or civil war, the wounds will never heal.
For tens of thousands of people across the world, the daily risks of landmines cause not only bloody injuries and death, but also trauma and distress, resulting in an uncertain future for present and upcoming generations.
The idea of prohibiting the use of landmines remains an ideal that unites countries across the globe. In fact, the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, commonly referred to as the Ottawa Convention or the Mine Ban Treaty (in force since 1999), constitutes an important international framework, signed and acceded by more than 160 UN member states, to create a world free of landmines.
The process until the adoption of Ottawa Convention began following the end of the Second World War (1941-1945) which offered credence and a much-needed impetus to the necessity of prohibiting and eliminating the use of landmines once and for all.
In this connection, one can refer to the judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which brought about the evolution of the prohibition of landmines as a norm, followed by the adoption by the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Rules for the Protection of the Civilian Population from the Dangers of Indiscriminate Warfare, and the holding of the 1993 ICRC Symposium on Anti-Personnel Mines, also referred to as the Montreux Symposium.
The 2008 Cartagena Declaration likewise commits to creating a world free of anti-personnel mines. Other frameworks, such as the Hague Declarations and Regulations, the Brussels Declaration of 1874, the St. Petersburg Declaration and the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) Nuclear Weapons Case, likewise touch upon and limits the means and methods of the use of landmines in warfare.
Although legal frameworks are in place to minimize their adverse impact, the reality on the ground demonstrates that the use of landmines has continued in many armed conflicts, and that unless removed and destroyed, landmines go on killing innocent civilians long after the respective armed conflict has ended.
It is well evidenced that the use of landmines adversely affects community livelihoods, freedom of movement, the use of transportation and development of critical infrastructure as tracts of lands infested with landmines become unusable.
Presence of landmines likewise results in overcrowding, over-cultivating and degradation of the remaining areas. Hence, this hinders people’s ability to grow agricultural products which are necessary for survival which in the end leads to higher food prices.
Landmines likewise have an impact on soil quality and composition since they contain toxic substances. Pollution of water frequently occurs, affecting fishing and reducing the income of communities which depend on fishing for their survival.
Victims of landmines often face perennial physical and physiological injuries, long-term unemployment, social stigmatization and discrimination. They are among the most marginalized segments of society.
For many countries, the adverse socio-economic impacts of different generations of landmines have remained a thorny and cumbersome path to come to terms with.
In the case of Cambodia, one of the most mine affected countries of the world, the elimination of landmines required more than two decades and investments of USD 140 million. It is only in 2025 that the country will be free of landmines.
As part of Laos’ ambitions to become a tourist country, landmine clearance remains a major obstacle to overcome.
For Croatia, the initial goal of eliminating all landmines by 2019 was squandered – it is likely that this target will be reached by 2026 despite the fact that the country ended its war of independence in 1995.
In Ukraine, landmines pose a threat to at least two million people.
In Angola, landmines adversely affect and disrupt wildlife, impeding the country’s ability to leverage its wealth of wildlife and biodiversity. One can refer to many more countries in similar settings, but the bottom line remains that landmines do not disappear even when peace is brought to war-ridden societies.
Notwithstanding our understanding of the physical and phycological hazards of landmines, what impedes the creation of a universal norm prohibiting the use of landmines and of a permanent monitoring body to inform the UN General Assembly and Security Council of the continued trade in landmines?
The reason why landmines are still being produced is that they are effective against combatants, cheap to produce, causes significant damage and serve as a weapon of deterrence. Moreover, landmines are not affected by adverse weather conditions and do not require logistical support. It sounds absurd to say, but landmines are always vigilant on the moves of adversaries, have no moral, remain free of Covid-19 and cannot desert.
For smaller nations, the use of landmines may play an important role in a defense strategy as it provides less incentives for more powerful countries to invade and offers a phytological deterrence factor.
On the other hand, let us not forget that for great powers the elimination of the use of landmines may provide credence and an important impetus to the total prohibition of weapons of mass destruction encompassing nuclear weapons.
As long as weapons continue to be considered as providing military advantages and solutions, the total elimination of the use of landmines will continue to remain an unfilled ideal and aspiration in the years to come.
The change in perception regarding the utility of weapons of mass determination require states to cleave out their perceived security potential from their zero-sum game defense doctrines, contribute to a safer world environment and recognise that weapons do not bring peace and development.
The prohibition of landmines hence remains a matter of justice and to concretize the common ideals and aspirations of humanity for a better and more just world of which there is no space for landmines.