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A Global Ban on Landmines

03-12-1997 Statement

Treaty Signing Conference and Mine Action Forum, Ottawa, 2-4 December 1997. Statement by Cornelio Sommaruga, President, International Committee of the Red Cross.

We celebrate today a victory for humanity; for the cause of humanitarian values in the face of cruelty and indifference.

This historic movement against the horrors of anti-personnel mines began as an expression of human compassion on the part of medical and other humanitarian workers in mine-affected countries. It grew as their compelling testimony and images of the appalling effects of this weapon were transmitted by a myriad of non-governmental organizations and international agencies. It became unstoppable as the public conscience began to view this weapon as an abomination. An absolute ban on anti-personnel mines was transformed from an " idealistic dream " into the Ottawa Treaty as diplomats, political leaders and generals allowed themselves to move beyond " business as usual " in the world of international negotiations and respond to the suffering this weapon inflicts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, and the entire International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent on behalf of which I speak, pay tribute to those whose untiring efforts have brought us to this solemn moment in which the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines and on their Destruction is signed by distinguished leaders from around the world. In particular we commend the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and the government of Canada, the United Nations Secretary General and his predecessor, the many governments which took unilateral action to stop the use of anti-personnel mines, the fifty States which committed themselves to the Ottawa Process in this room 14 months ago, and each State which stands here today, often after difficult in ternal deliberations, ready to sign the new Convention.

This extraordinary coalition of civil society, international institutions and governments has proven that humanity is not powerless in the face of its worst instincts or the destructive uses of modern technology. But this experience, far from being a reason for self-satisfaction, should be the basis of sober reflection. In demonstrating that it is indeed possible to respond resolutely to the trauma and suffering of humanity we assume a solemn responsibility to ask why this happens so seldom? Why is war waged with one's whole mind and heart and soul, while struggles for humanity are too often waged, if at all, with only half of our being?

The Ottawa Treaty is historic not only due to the process through which it was created but also because of its content. For the first time a weapon which has been in widespread use by armed forces throughout the world is being withdrawn from arsenals due to its appalling human, economic and social costs. And for the first time the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of a weapon are being prohibited in one decisive step. This reflects an important insight with implications for the future development of international humanitarian law. The Ottawa Treaty recognizes that outlawing the use of a weapon while permitting its continued production, possession and transfer is not enough. Had this insight prevailed when poison gas was banned in 1925 fifty to seventy years of uncertainty about the retaliatory use of biological and chemical weapons would have been avoided.

This week the Ottawa Treaty becomes the common heritage of those who have given it birth and those who will put their signature to it. Together we assume the responsibility for the long-term task of assuring its early entry into force, universalization and implementatio n. The ICRC is committed to continuing its work in all regions of the world to promote acceptance of the Treaty.

The ICRC is painfully aware that a ban on anti-personnel mines, which will save lives and limbs, will nonetheless do nothing to improve the plight of the hundreds of thousands of existing victims whose needs have barely begun to be addressed. The ban itself will provide little comfort to some two thousand people whose lives will be forever shattered this month by mines currently in the ground. In some respects banning anti-personnel mines was the easiest of our challenges. Mine clearance and the provision of adequate assistance to victims will require enduring engagement and will certainly be more costly. The ICRC alone has already spent close to 15 million US dollars in 1997 on assistance programmes related to mine incidents. I appeal to each of the Heads of State, Heads of Government, Ministers and organizations here present to personally ensure that this day marks the beginning of the mobilization of the international community and its institutions for the long road ahead.

For its part the ICRC is committed to continuing its surgical and rehabilitative services for all war victims, including mine victims, and intends to increase its efforts to reinforce the capabilities of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to provide medical and rehabilitative care in mine-affected countries.

The tragic plight of mine victims has been one of the driving forces behind efforts for a ban and to improve mine clearance. Yet relatively little attention has been given, at the international level, to coordinating and improving the delivery of care to mine victims. This situation must begin to change in 1998.

If we fail to learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. In the coming decades the potential for development of particularly hein ous and indiscriminate arms threatens to outpace the ability of humanity to respond. For this reason States bear a weighty responsibility, enshrined in the Geneva Law, to determine, before deployment , whether weapons under development are covered by the general prohibitions of weapons which are inherently indiscriminate or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.

The landmines issue is but part of a phenomena of great concern to the ICRC: the virtually unrestricted flow of vast quantities of weapons, particularly small arms, throughout the world and their consistent use in violation of the basic norms of international humanitarian law. As this trend continues efforts to teach respect for these norms are being overwhelmed by the flow of weapons. We have learned with landmines that it is both easier and faster to distribute arms than to teach humanitarian law principles to those who possess them. I call on States, as I did two years ago at the opening of the Vienna Review Conference, to address the issue of arms availability as a matter of pressing international concern.

Let us celebrate today a victory for humanity. But in doing so let us recognize that the real victory for humanity lies ahead. It will be celebrated on that day when we must no longer pour our best efforts into picking up the debris of war and mending the human wounds of a destructive technology out of control; it will be the day when humanity's wisdom, respect for basic humanitarian norms and instinct for self-protection converge to prevent such horrors from occurring.

 Ref. EXSO 97.12.03-ENG