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Landmine negotiations: Impasse in Vienna highlights urgency of national and regional measures


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) deeply regrets that the recent Review Conference of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was unable to agree on new measures to prohibit or severely restrict the production, use and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. The Conference, which adjourned on 13 October after three weeks of negotiations in Vienna and nearly two years of preparation, was seen as an important element in international efforts to address the humanitarian crisis caused by landmines. This unfortunate outcome reflects both the overly technical nature of many of the proposals considered and an unwillingness on the part of many States to place significant limits on landmines to achieve the humanitarian goals of the conference.

The ICRC appeals to governments and the concerned public to ensure that humanitarian considerations are put in the centre of negotiations at the resumed sessions of the Review Conference, to be held in Geneva from 15-19 January and 22 April - 3 May 1996. Furthermore, it is calling for increased efforts on the national and regional levels to ensure that humanitarian responsibilities are met even if agreement on far-reaching measures is not possible in the near future at the international level. On 22 November the ICRC, together with national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, launched for the first time in its history an international media campaign aimed at mobilising the public conscience for the stigmatisation of anti-personnel mines.

Progress and new obstacles in Vienna 

Despite adjourning in deadlock on a number of important technical issues, the Vienna session of the Review Conference did achieve a large measure of provisional agreement on new measures which the ICRC considers important steps forward. These include:

*Extension of the scope of the CCW's landmine restrictions to cover internal as well as international armed conflicts;

*Assignment of responsibility for the clearance of landmines to those who lay them;

*Increased obligations on the part of combatants to protect humanitarian workers, including the ICRC, national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other humanitarian workers, from landmines so that they can reach people in need;

*A requirement that all , rather than only certain types of minefields, be recorded; and

*A prohibition on the use of mechanisms which cause a mine to explode when an electromagnetic detector, such as those used by mine clearance teams, comes near it.

However, there was no agreement on the key restrictions on the use of landmines which were prepared for the Review Conference over the last two years by a Group of Governmental Experts charged with its preparation. These included requirements that:

*All anti-personnel mines must be detectable;

*Remotely delivered mines must contain a self-destruction mechanism; and

*All hand or machine emplaced anti-personnel mines used outside of marked, guarded and fenced minefields should have a self-destructing mechanism.

The deadlock in Vienna was in part due to the fact that some governments argued for far less restrictive measures than they had appeared willing to accept in previous meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts. Although most countries accepted the above requirements in principle, or in many cases supported stronger restrictions including a total ban, the disputes which led to a deadlock involved technical measures for implementing these requirements. Disagreements centred on:

*Whether self-neutralising mines, which remain in the ground indefinitely and must be treated by civilians and clearance teams as if they are live, could be substituted for self-destructing ones;

*Whether self-destructing mines should destroy themselves within thirty days or could rather remain live for as long as a year;

*Whether the maximum permissible failure rate for self-destructing mines would be as stringent as 1 in 1000 (0.1%) or as lenient as 100 in 1000 (10%);

*Whether a minimum metallic content, such as 8 grams of metal, should be specified so that mines are detectable under actual conditions in post-conflict terrain; and

*Whether the technical requirements above (a) should be met immediately for all new mines used, (b) should be subject to a grace period of up to 15 years or (c) should be implemented " as soon as feasible " .

Most of the technical disputes described above reflect an inability or unwillingness on the part of particular countries to adapt the type of mines they produce or use to achieve the humanitarian objectives of the Review Conference. On the other hand it represents an unwillingness on the part of States promoting new mine technologies to consider simpler, but more far-reaching measures.

The ICRC regrets that proposals were blocked which would have required that anti-tank mines be detectable and which would prohibit their use with anti-handling mechanisms - which cause a mine to explode when clearance teams attempt to remove it. It also regrets that no verif ication provisions were agreed upon.

The ICRC's position 

 The ICRC remains convinced that the only effective means of ending the scourge of anti-personnel landmines is to entirely prohibit their production, transfer and use .The difficulties encountered in the Vienna negotiations demonstrate, as the ICRC had feared, that complex and costly technical measures will not solve the landmine crisis. Because many States are either unable or unwilling to make the technical changes suggested, and because promotion of self-destructing mines could lead to an overall increase in number of mines used, simpler and more far-reaching measures should now be considered. In addition to being far more effective such measures are likely to be more easily verified than the complex regime which was considered in Vienna.

In addition to continuing its efforts to increase support for a global ban on anti-personnel landmines, which has now been supported by sixteen States, the U.N. Secretary General, the heads of numerous U.N. Agencies, the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity, the European Parliament and Pope John Paul II, the ICRC will actively promote two new initiatives :

*A ban on all transfers of anti-personnel mines in the context of the 1980 Convention; and

* National and regional measures - Stopping landmines doesn't depend only on the success of international negotiations. States can take their own moral and political responsibility to end this scourge either unilaterally on their own territory or co-operatively in various regions of the world. The prohibition of the production, import and use of anti-personnel mines and a commitment to clear and destroy existing mines, in the field and in stockpiles , would be an important step in protecting one's own population and territory from the devastating effects of their use. In post-conflict areas such undertakings could strengthen a country's case for mine clearance assistance from the international community. Such national measures would also be an important step in promoting the elimination of anti-personnel mines worldwide.

At the national level the ICRC urges States to begin implementing immediately and unilaterally the types of measures for the protection of civilians which they advocated at the Review Conference. In addition, enhanced efforts at the national level will be needed to ensure:

*The maintenance and strengthening of existing moratoria on the international transfer of anti-personnel mines (i.e. replacement of partial or temporary moratoria with comprehensive and permanent measures);

*For States which have not yet done so, accession to the 1980 Convention including its four Protocols; and

*Active participation in the 1996 sessions of the Review Conference and promotion there of the most stringent measures, including a total ban on anti-personnel mines.

The deadlock with which the Vienna landmine negotiations ended suggests that not enough political leaders yet understand the scope of the landmine crisis or consider the humanitarian, social and economic costs of these weapons to outweigh their limited military utility. States which participate in the resumed sessions of the Review Conference should be urged to put humanitarian interests squarely in the centre of their negotiating positions and to bring humanitarian experts into their delegations. These sessions will only succeed if States are able to rise above their narrow national interests in the general interest of h umanity.

Vienna's historic success: blinding laser weapons 

The adoption in Vienna of a new fourth Protocol prohibiting blinding with laser weapons represents a significant breakthrough in international humanitarian law. The prohibition, in advance, of an abhorrent new weapon the production and proliferation of which appeared imminent is an historic step for humanity. It represents the first time since 1868, when the use of exploding bullets was banned, that a weapon of military interest has been banned before its use on the battlefield and before a stream of victims gave visible proof of its tragic effects.  

The new Protocol prohibits both the use and transfer of laser weapons specifically designed, as one of their combat functions, to blind permanently. It also requires States to take all feasible precautions, including training of their armed forces, to avoid permanent blinding through the legitimate use of other laser systems. This is the first time that both the use and transfer of a weapon has been entirely prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Efforts to achieve this Protocol were initiated by Sweden and Switzerland at the 1986 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and pursued by the ICRC which, between 1989-91 convened four international meetings of experts on this issue. The results of these meetings were published in Blinding Weapons - the primary reference work on the subject. In recent years the issue has been addressed by a growing number of non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch, and organisations representing the blind and war veterans.

Although the sc ope of application of the new Protocol currently extends only to international conflicts, it was generally agreed in Vienna that it should also apply to conflicts of a non-international character. It was understood that the wording of the Protocol's scope provisions on internal conflicts would in the future be the same as that adopted for the landmines protocol.

The ICRC stresses the importance of vigorous national efforts to ensure that the new Protocol is widely accepted by States and effectively implemented. Such efforts include:

*Ensuring that States declare themselves bound by the Protocol at the earliest possible date;

*The adoption of national measures to prevent the production, transfer, use and proliferation of blinding laser weapons.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 

November 1995/Rev.