Tractors, not landmines
"When two elephants fight," an African proverb says, "it's the grass which suffers."
The proverb finds its most fitting example in landmines. Landmines are deadly stuff. The statistics are staggering. The United Nations estimates there are 110 million landmines planted around the world in over 64 countries. While 100,000 are removed each year, an additional 2 to 5 million are deployed.
An anti-personnel mine costs from $3 to $30. It costs a hundred times that for the international community to destroy those landmines at considerable risk to the experts who have to do it. Besides, vast tracts of arable land and pastures are designated as forbidden territory.
The harvest is grim: 26,000 people are dead or maimed each year. That is one person every 17 minutes. They are everywhere, but mostly in poor and war-inflicted countries such as Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sudan. The victims are mostly children and civilians.
Elsa's story is typical. In January 1995, eleven-year old Elsa Armindo Chela went picking mangoes with her cousin Osvaldo in the town of Kuito, in Angola. Elsa lost her eye, her leg, and her cousin. She suffers bouts of depression. Elsa may smile warmly and hold her hand in the house, but withdraws in the company of other children.
Elsa's parents lost three other children to disease and starvation during the 1993 siege. Her father worries whether Elsa will finish school. "Angola should buy tractors and seeds, not landmines," he said, "I appeal to the international community not sell us any more of those weapons.
This year's Nobel Peace Prize justly went to a small grassroots disarmament organization that has been fighting for the abolition of landmines for the past six years. Jody Williams, a 47 year old American peace activist, who heads the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), was the recipient of the prize.
She began working for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation at the end of 1991 to bring together a coalition to ban antipersonnel landmines. From two organizations, the coalition has grown to more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in over 60 countries.
Jody Williams has spoken and written extensively on the subject, including a seminal book on the socio-economic impact of the weapon, After the Guns Fall Silent: The Enduring Legacy of Landmines. She and her colleagues have brought to the task a combination of human compassion, political savvy, and communicative competence unparalleled in the history of the peace movement.
Princess Diana's championing of their cause was an element in this campaign. But their use of the Internet as a means of communication and mobilization of hundreds of NGOs and millions of world citizens to engage in an informed and effective campaign is a phenomenon worth emulating.
This is a historical landmark, a new beginning in world history in which ordinary citizens can be empowered and mobilized to stop the madness of their democratic and undemocratic governments.
Upon the receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, the outspoken and feisty Ms. Williams said to reporters, "The main obstacle is President Clinton. I think it's tragic that Clinton does not want to be on the side of humanity and does not want to join the tide of history in bringing about a ban of this indiscriminate killer of civilians."
At the September 1997 Oslo Conference to ban landmines, over 100 countries signed a treaty for an immediate ban. The United States, China, and Russia did not. However, following the grant of the Nobel Peace Prize, Russia joined the treaty. The United States has so far refused to sign on three grounds.
First, Pentagon considers landmines a "combat multiplier" freeing its forces for other operations. Second, the U.S. considers its own so-called "smart mines" capable of targeting only tanks. Third, it wishes to except the Korean Peninsula from the treaty. All three claims/demands create loopholes that would render the treaty meaningless.
Fortunately, there are some voices of sanity in the U.S. government speaking for the abolition of landmines. Senator Patrick Leahy and Representatives Lane Evans and Jack Quinn have introduced legislation in the Senate and the House to bar new U. S. anti-personnel landmine deployments beginning January 1, 2000.
Congratulating the ICBL, Senator Leahy predicted that "this award will help encourage the nations of the world to seize this fragile moment to begin banning these weapons forever. I hope it will help convince my country to join this process."
It took 16 years to achieve a ban on chemical weapons, and 23 years to achieve the nuclear test ban treaty. How many hundreds of thousands of deaths and traumatic injuries from landmines must occur before the Great Powers are willing to forego this inhumane and indiscriminate weapon? That is a question that recalcitrant governments are not willing to answer. But the answer lies not there but in a global civil society that is fast building up to pressure the governments to recognize the most elementary rules of human decency.
The landmines ban movement demonstrates a new way of conducting international diplomacy, in which middle and smaller powers take the lead in responding to and working with civil society and their NOGs to address urgent humanitarian needs. The global communications system is providing the channels through which an informed global citizenship can take effective action instead of leaving it to the experts. War is too important a matter to be left to warriors.
"In many ways our work has just begun," Ms. Williams has promised. The International Campaign has drafted an action plan for promoting the rapid entry into force of the treaty, as well as universalization and monitoring of the treaty. The same global communication system that has made such a worldwide movement possible also makes monitoring technically more possible. Remote sensing satellites and ground inspections can detect the violators.
In December 1997, these efforts will culminate with a conference in Ottawa to sign the international treaty. In 22 Articles, the treaty bans landmines in all forms without any of the loopholes that the United States was proposing. In Oslo, the U. S. failed to convince other governments that its "smart" antipersonnel mines should be redefined as submunitions or devices on antitank mines.
As Ms. Williams has pointed out, "this campaign will not go away." Indeed, it must not go away. So long as two of the most powerful countries in the world (U. S. and China) have not signed the treaty, all pressure must be brought to bear on their governments to recognize their moral and political responsibility.
The peace movement should insist on the total eradication of landmines and assistance to those who must live with this lethal contamination; it must also focus on all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical. Abolition 2000, another coalition of NGOs, is working for precisely that objective in the nuclear arms field. Only when these immoral weapons of mass destruction are completely eradicated, we can begin to call ourselves civilized.
The erosion of democracy through a campaign financing system that puts the politicians at the service of donors, including arms manufacturers, rather than citizens can now be partially corrected by a mobilized civil society. But this would take active and informed citizens. The Internet provides a new democratic sphere of public discourse in which citizens can be globally informed, empowered, and mobilized on specific issues.
The case of landmines illustrates how the new cyber-democracy can work effectively. All it takes is a compassionate citizen with a computer, including a modem connected to a telephone line and an Internet server to reach the varieties of websites that would connect with contemporary social movements. You can help in alleviating the sufferings of past and future victims of landmine and nuclear disasters by reaching out to the following two specific websites: