The Landmines Ban & Its Discontents

The History of Landmines

by Mike Croll
Leo Cooper (To be published in the US in November by Combined Books), 164 pp., £18.95

In the furor over the publication of the US government manual on the Joys of Oral Sex it’s possible that the following event in the diplomatic calendar escaped your attention: in September Burkina Faso became the fortieth country to ratify the Ottawa Convention, the international agreement that forbids the manufacture, use, transfer, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines—that outlaws everything other than digging them up and destroying them.

Over 130 countries have signed the Convention, otherwise known as the Landmine Ban Treaty. Signing it, however, means very little. It doesn’t mean, as might be supposed, that signatory countries are committed to observing the ban, or even to a timetable for observing it. A signature is a mark only of general intent. The ratification stage, which follows, represents a more serious commitment, but forty countries must ratify before the treaty enters into force—and entry-into-force takes place only after a further six-month delay. It fell to Burkina Faso (neck-and-neck with Equatorial Guinea) to be the fortieth state to fax a document of ratification to Ottawa and start the six-month countdown.

The treaty will now come into force in March of next year. Slow as this may seem, in the glacial world of arms control it represents an unprecedentedly short time: the global coalition of non-governmental organizations that makes up the Landmines Campaign has made the Ottawa Treaty a reality in a mere seven years. But the issue has slid from the news. Burkina Faso made the front page only in the Republic of Ireland, where a conference convened by the Campaign was in progress at Dublin Castle. The subject of the conference was how to monitor the ban, an endless and expensive task for which there is scant provision in the treaty, which leaves compliance to the good faith of the governments of the states that are party to it.

The Landmines Campaign now has to shift gear and find ways of holding these governments to their word (post-Diana Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and South Africa are among the states that have ratified the Ottawa Convention). But there remains the awkward fact that the most significant mine-producing countries—the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan—have not even signed, let alone ratified the convention. Although the United States has placed a moratorium on export and committed itself, provisionally, to signing by the year 2006, there is, with the possible exception of Russia, little prospect of any other major mine-manufacturing states subscribing to the treaty. There is also the fact that most landmine use takes place in civil wars where one, at least, of the parties is not a state. There is no mechanism for guerrilla forces—non-state actors, as campaigners and UN officials call them—to sign on to the treaty. This both limits the territorial reach of the ban and discourages governments from adhering to it on the grounds that it will tend to put them at a disadvantage in their internal conflicts.

For such reasons there are those who believe the ban itself…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.