Eliminating world's hidden killers

April 04, 2007|By Karl F. Inderfurth

Today, countries around the globe, from Congo to Tajikistan and from Lebanon to Vietnam, are observing the International Day for Mine Awareness.

It should be cause for celebration. In a world beset by war, poverty and disease - problems that often appear intractable - the crusade against land mines is proving to be a triumph. It defies the naysayers who argue that global entities such as the United Nations and collective action by nations are ineffectual when it comes to tackling thorny global problems.

Ten years ago, the international community finally awoke to the true extent of the global land mine crisis, with tens of millions of these hidden killers scattered in more than 80 countries. A decade later - acre by acre, field by field - significant progress is being made to eliminate the threat posed by these indiscriminate and inhumane weapons.

Mine action programs - including finding and destroying land mines and teaching people how to remain safe - and the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel land mines have reduced the annual number of casualties from an estimated 26,000 people 10 years ago (almost all innocent civilians) to fewer than half that number today.

At least 38 countries have ceased production of land mines. Only a handful remain active producers. A de facto global ban on land mine trade is in effect. Mine use has fallen. Almost 40 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed; 65 countries have eliminated their entire inventories.

In recent years, several countries have been declared "mine-free," including Costa Rica, Djibouti and El Salvador. Others, such as Mozambique and Jordan, are moving toward another milestone, "mine-safe," signifying that although some mines may remain on their territory, they are no longer considered a threat to civilians.

Successes like these have required a substantial financial commitment from the international community: more than $3 billion donated over the last 15 years. The U.S. government has made a major contribution, providing one-quarter to one-third of global humanitarian land mine assistance to nearly 50 of the 80 land mine-affected countries.

Private donors in the United States have also played a significant and often innovative role. In 1998, the State Department launched a public-private partnership program to encourage others to get involved in combating land mines. Today, there are 50 such partnerships, including long-standing nonprofits such as Rotary International and startups such as the Adopt-A-Minefield Campaign of the U.N. Association, Roots of Peace (which turns cleared minefields into vineyards) and the Landmine Survivors Network.

The United Nations hopes that its International Day for Mine Awareness will attract widespread public and media attention. Maintaining momentum toward a mine-free world would be greatly assisted by two additional actions:

First, universal adherence to the Ottawa Convention must be promoted and strengthened. More than 150 countries have joined the treaty that prohibits the production, possession transfer and use of antipersonnel land mines. A number of key global players have not, including the United States, Russia, China and India. Their support is essential to complete the task of bringing the rest of the international community on board to stigmatize and ban these weapons for all time.

Second, nations should be encouraged to join a new human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was opened for signature at the United Nations last week. It would ensure that people around the world with disabilities enjoy the same rights as everyone else to equality and nondiscrimination, equal protection before the law, and work and education opportunities.

Despite successes in reducing the dangers posed by land mines, the number of land mine survivors continues to rise, to perhaps half a million people today, according to the Landmine Monitor Report. The overall level of funding for survivor assistance is failing to keep up with the expanding number of those requiring medical care, prosthetics and rehabilitation and support for their social and economic reintegration.

Quick entry into force of the new treaty would give those disabled by land mines an important boost in their efforts to rebuild their shattered lives. It would also give us something else to celebrate at next year's observance of the International Day for Mine Awareness.

Karl F. Inderfurth was special representative of the president and secretary of state for global humanitarian demining from 1997 to 1998 and is on the faculty of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His e-mail is kinderfurth@aol.com.

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