Why does Canada have a landmine foundation? Humanitarianism and the Movement to Ban Landmines.

by | Jan 31, 2012 | LCSC, War and Society | 1 comment

For some, antipersonnel landmines (or AP mines) do not immediately invoke images of Canada. Fields scattered with hidden explosives, innocent civilians with missing limbs, and poverty stricken regions still feeling the heat of a battle fought long ago, are not something seen in the Great White North. Nor does Canada have a reputation for being a military powerhouse eager to employ landmines in combat. One might justly wonder why Canada has a landmine foundation at all. It would further surprise such sceptics to learn that not only is Canada active in the clearing of landmines, but that it was at the heart of an international movement to ban AP mines in the 1990s. In fact, the Mine Ban Treaty, which has been signed by over one hundred countries, was held in Ottawa in 1997 (pictured above).

The reasons for “why Canada?” are complex, but there are several historical forces to consider that can help one better appreciate the Canadian connection. First, it is important to know why the landmines issue was such a hot topic in the 1990s, which had much to do with the legacy of the Cold War and its impact on humanitarian organizations. During the Cold War mines were a weapon of choice among combatants due to their low costs, and were often provided for free to guerrilla groups and regimes that received U.S. or Soviet backing. But even after the fall of the USSR, the mines remained in the Earth, and blocked important land and resources to communities that were attempting to rebuild. Fields needed for agriculture, and regions surrounding sources of water, were cut off from villages that relied on them for sustenance. Poverty stricken countries recovering from war were therefore in demand for food and medical aid that they could not afford or produce on their own. Unfortunately, minefields also provide additional danger and obstacles to humanitarian groups attempting to assist regions in need of support. It is not surprising then that a movement to ban landmines gained significant momentum in the post Cold War era. Humanitarian groups operating in this context required knowledge of the issues posed by landmines, thus creating awareness in the international community. To further grasp the connection between humanitarian activism and landmines, consider the following example. In 1998, a year after the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty, the Canadian government pledged 3.7 million to Central America to provide immediate and urgent assistance to demining efforts in the region. The reason for the increase was brought on by Hurricane Mitch. The hurricane, causing mudslides and flooding across Honduras and Nicaragua had spread landmines to unpredictable areas. In order to provide appropriate aid to the stricken communities, increased awareness and resources to the demining process were necessary. The importance of humanitarianism cannot be understated. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which started the banning process in the early 1990s, was a coalition of originally six humanitarian organizations (this number has now grown to over 1,000). The final product—the Ottawa Treaty—was quite possibly the first treaty to “blend arms control and international humanitarian law.”

How the humanitarian movement translated into international law is another story. This was made possible by the role of Non-Government Organizations who found sympathy from a Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister committed to a foreign policy based on peacekeeping and human security. Considering the success of the Treaty and the amount of countries that ratified it, it is easy to take it for granted. But the Ottawa Treaty never would have been realized if it weren’t for the pressure of NGOs, the support of the Canadian public, and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s bold and controversial decision to push for the ban outside of the United Nations. As Cameron Maxwell explains in his book To Walk Without Fear “It was easy to present the issue to the public in terms of a simple moral and political choice: to keep a weapon based on limited military utility or ban it on the grounds of massive and indiscriminate humanitarian costs.” Indeed this was the position of the NGOs, and it found support from a public that wanted Canadian foreign policy to emphasize peace building. But “the ban would not have been achieved” Maxwell continues, “had Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy been unwilling to go out on a diplomatic limb.” After negotiations failed to materialize at the U.N.’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) due to opposition from the United States, Russia and China, Canada invited anyone interested in continuing the discussion to a separate meeting. On 2 October 1996, Canada shocked the world by announcing the destruction of two-thirds of its AP stockpile and Axworthy’s launching of the Ottawa Process, which called for a full ban to be signed by December 1997.

But the effort to ban landmines goes beyond the signing of the treaty, nor is the effort solely the responsibility of the governments who signed it. As Kenneth R. Rutherford explains in his book Disarming States, the movement was “the first time that civilized society…found a partnership with governments around the world to eliminate a conventional weapon.” Essentially, the movement came from the bottom up, where Non-Government Organizations actually spearheaded the cause, created support among the populace, and influenced government policy. A unique partnership between citizens and government to “raise awareness and funds to end the human and economic suffering caused by anti-personnel landmines” necessitates both parties to participate. This requires states to stop the production and use of landmines, but it also requires the detection and destruction of existing mines, as well as victim assistance. The achievement of the latter goals has been a domain of NGOs such as the CLF who, throughout its history, have held numerous types of charitable events to raise funds for demining efforts. As others have noted, the banning of landmines found strong support in Canada because NGOs provided Canadians with agency in an arena that was traditionally the domain of the state. No longer did the stockpiling, use and effects of military weapons need to be outside of the average citizen’s control. By becoming active with NGOs and the movement to ban landmines, individuals could participate in ideals of peacekeeping, humanitarianism and global security, in regions that were thousands of miles away from home.

As the recent revolutions across the Middle East have shown, the information age has been a significant force in promoting a global society. The further eradication of landmines can only be achieved by gathering support of individuals across the globe. In the blog posts that follow, readers will be given an in-depth look at the landmines issue, the damages they inflict and what they can do to get involved. It is the goal of this blog to raise awareness to the issues and encourage the reader to take up the cause of the Ottawa Treaty, and help rid the world of a hidden killer.

Further Reading:

Ban Landmines! The Ottawa process and the International Movement to Ban Landmines. Canada. Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Mine Action Team.

Cameron, Maxwell A., Robert J. Lawson and Brian W. Tomlin (eds). To Walk Without Fear: The Global Movement to Ban Landmines. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Louis, Maresca and Stuart Casey-Maslen. The Banning of Anti-Personnel Landmines the Legal Contribution of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000.

Rutherford, Ken. Disarming States: the International Movement to Ban Landmines. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011.

Rutherford, Ken. “The Evolving Arms Control Agenda: Implications of the Role of NGOs in Banning Antipersonnel Landmines.” World Politics 53, No. 1. (October 2000), 74-11.

Williams, Jody. Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.