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Advancing the Ottawa Convention in Northern and Eastern Europe: The Vilnius Seminar

08-06-2004 Statement

Opening statement of Mr Jacques Forster, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Vilnius, Lithuania, 8-9 June 2004

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me first to convey my sincere thanks, on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to the Government of Lithuania for having organised this seminar on a subject of great importance to the ICRC. Let me also extend my thanks to Canada, Germany and the Netherlands for sponsoring this event.

As many of you know, the ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent humanitarian organisation, established over 140 years ago. Our mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war, and to promote and strengthen the law to protect them -- referred to as " international humanitarian law " . The Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines -- also known as the Ottawa Convention -- reflects all aspects of our mission, which includes direct support for tens of thousands of mine victims, for whom we provide medical assistance and physical rehabilitation programmes, and work with mine-affected communities, where we raise awareness about the dangers of landmines.

The ICRC's call, in 1994, for a total ban on anti-personnel mines was based on the experience of our surgeons and delegates around the world who had witnessed a profound medical, human and social crisis in situations where these weapons had been used. In medical terms, they had created an " epidemic " of exceptionally severe injury, death and suffering.

Anti-personnel mines are " victim-activated " , that is, they are designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contac t of a person, be it a soldier or civilian, man, woman or child . They are inherently incapable of distinguishing civilians from combatants, and therefore incompatible with the fundamental rule of international humanitarian law prohibiting the use of indiscriminate methods and means of warfare. Anti-personnel mines continue to strike blindly long after conflicts have ceased, killing and maiming mostly civilians.

The suffering caused by these weapons is particularly horrific, and war-hardened ICRC surgeons consider them among the worst injuries they have to treat. Those who survive an anti-personnel mine blast typically require amputation, multiple operations, and prolonged physical rehabilitation. Mine survivors suffer permanent disability , with its social, psychological and economic implications. The effects of anti-personnel mines do not occur by " accident " : these weapons are specifically designed to shatter limbs and lives beyond repair. Their high human cost far outweighs their limited military value.

A comprehensive solution to eradicate the landmine epidemic came in 1997 with the adoption of the Ottawa Convention. This marked the first time in history that States agreed to ban completely, on the basis of international humanitarian law, a weapon that was already in generalised use. The Ottawa Convention not only prohibits a weapon: it provides a comprehensive humanitarian programme of action designed to respond to the humanitarian consequences of anti-personnel mines, by committing States to remove the threat of mines already in the ground, assist mine victims and sensitizing the civilian population about the dangers of anti-personnel mines.

Progress in implementing the Convention has been impressive so far. One hundred and forty-two (142) States -- the most recent being Estonia which we heartily congratulate -- are now party to the Convention. Use, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines have decreased dramatically. States Parties have destroyed over 31 millions antipersonnel mines within their Convention deadlines. Mine clearance is taking place in most of mine-affected States Parties. And, most importantly, the ICRC has found that were the Convention's norms are being fully applied, the number of new mine victims has decreased significantly, in some cases by two thirds or more.

However, the landmine scourge is far from over. Millions of antipersonnel mines continue to devastate populations around the world, claiming thousands of new victims each year, and impoverishing communities. Vast tracts of valuable lands remain unusable due to the presence of anti-personnel mines. Too many landmine survivors are not receiving the long-term care and rehabilitation that they desperately need.

We are encouraged that close to three quarters of the world's States have recognized that ending the human suffering caused by anti-personnel mines can only be achieved through a total ban of these indiscriminate and inhumane weapons. But as long as some States remain outside of the Convention and continue to retain large stockpiles, and to reserve themselves the right to use them, anti-personnel landmines will remain a persistent problem.

Virtually all of the world's States have subscribed to the goal of the eventual global elimination of anti-personnel mines. Indeed, this goal was reaffirmed by consensus by the States Parties to the Geneva Conventions at the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in G eneva last December..

The year 2004 constitutes a significant milestone in the life of the Ottawa Convention. It represents the half-way point to the mine-clearance deadlines of many States Parties, which will fall in 2009. And at the end of 2004, world leaders will gather in Kenya, for the Ottawa Convention's first Review Conference – referred to as the Nairobi Summit on a Mine Free World . States that are not yet party to the Ottawa Convention should seize the opportunity of this significant year to join. Universal adherence to the Convention will spare future generations the unspeakable suffering caused by anti-personnel mines and ensure that they live free from their silent menace.

Thank you.

Se also press release from 7.06.2004