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Deaths and injuries from landmines down dramatically, 20 years after global treaty

Former activists, negotiators and three foreign affairs ministers of past and present will come together in Toronto over the next two days to mark the anniversary of one of Canada’s greatest achievements of the 20th century.

It’s been 20 years since representatives from 75 countries gathered in Ottawa to kick off negotiations that led to the treaty banning landmines.

Today, that treaty bears the signatures of 162 countries. Thirty countries once contaminated with the deadly devices have become officially mine-free. Tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of crippling injuries have been averted.

“There’s no other way of looking at it other than to say this is a huge achievement,” says James Cowan, who heads Britain’s HALO Trust, the world’s largest demining organization.

“When you think that at that time in the world landmines were still very much a part of the way in which people fought wars. Since that time they have been banned by all the signatory countries. And really it’s Canada’s leadership that got us to this point.”

Cowan cites the example of what used to be one of the world’s most mine-infested countries.

“It’s taken 20 years, but in 2015 Mozambique became free of landmines. What it means is that people are not being killed and wounded. People are being given jobs, people have had farmland cleared and they can put it to good agricultural use.

“Perhaps most important of all, that country can have renewed economic confidence and thereby help it come out of the war it was in and allow it to thrive. So it’s a really very encouraging picture.”

Weapon targets the most vulnerable

The most typical landmine victim, says Cowan, is a boy aged 10 to 12 who lives in a rural area and who gathers scrap metal to raise money for his family.

Other vulnerable groups include children at play, farmers working their land, women who gather firewood or water and people who live in remote communities where travel on backwoods trails is common.

Luz Dari Landazury comes from such a community in Tumaco, Colombia, where the FARC rebel group operates. She’s in Canada this week as an ambassador for Handicap International, an NGO that helped her recover from the injuries she suffered while travelling home from a trip into town four years ago.

“Something impacted in my left leg and tore away my tendon. I had multiple fractures of the tibia but I didn’t feel any pain at that moment. All of my concern was for my baby, if she had lost a limb,” Landazury said. “I couldn’t see her face because she was covered in blood, and all I could do was to cry for help. Everyone around me was shouting and crying.”

Luz Dary Landazury

Luz Dary Landazury, far left, and her daughter Luz Ariana, right, were injured by a landmine near their home in Tumaco, Colombia. Today, Landazury is a landmine educator with Handicap International’s Johana Huertas, centre. (Handicap International)

Landazury’s seven-month-old baby suffered burns and had a fragment removed from her eye, but made a full recovery.

Landazury successfully pushed back against one surgeon’s insistence that her leg be amputated, although doctors had to cut large panels of skin from her arm and thigh for grafts.

Today she works as a landmine educator, teaching children and adults to recognize the devices, which she says are often disguised or hidden within suitcases, pipes, balls or even under cellphones.

“By educating people about risk, of course, we help to prevent a lot of these accidents. But the best thing that could happen to us is for someone to actually remove the mines.”

This year Canada announced it will spend $12.5 million over the next five years to help Colombia demine. This year saw a 63 per cent increase in Canada’s demining budget over the amount spent in 2014-15. The Harper government didn’t abandon the efforts during its time in office, spending $237 million over the course of a decade.

BELARUS MINES

Belarus officials display landmines in 2004, when the country had one of the largest stockpiles. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

The Canadian Forces are recognized experts in the field. This year Canadian soldiers have trained their Ukrainian counterparts to remove some of the mines newly planted in their territory. And 18 Canadian soldiers last month removed no fewer than 747 mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance from the Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands, where they have lain since the Second World War.

Target 2025

Lloyd Axworthy was Canada’s foreign minister when the treaty process began, and he says one of its achievements was to show that arms treaties, which had always consisted of rival powers sitting down together to hash out terms, could be pursued differently.

In this case, the government of Canada partnered with the International Coalition to Ban Landmines, an NGO led by Vermont teacher Jody Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her efforts.

“You don’t need big powers to flex their muscles,” Axworthy says. “You can get a combination, a partnership of middle powers, middle-sized countries, the civil society, international organizations like the Red Cross. And it has led to all kinds of subsequent developments. The International Criminal Court is an example of that.”

LANDMINE

In 1997, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy holds up a copy of the mines plan that he announced during his closing speech at the Global Ban on Landmines treaty in Ottawa. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Axworthy says that although some of the world’s biggest countries have not signed, including the United States, China, Russia and India, the treaty has altered their behaviour. Washington declined to sign because it maintains it needs landmines to protect South Korea from invasion. Everywhere else in the world the U.S. honours the treaty, and has become the world’s biggest funder of demining.

Axworthy says the anti-landmine movement has now set its sights on the removal of all remaining landmines in signatory countries by 2025.

“The treaty is 20 years old, and when it was signed it was seen as something of an enormous step forward in protecting people,” said Axworthy. “We’re in a period right now where that same enthusiasm isn’t there, there’s a distemper, I think you could say politically. And I think it behooves those who are supportive of things like the landmine treaty to get their act together, begin to remobilize their energy and say look, we can do something really important.”

“If we can get rid of landmines totally from the world, what a statement that makes of the capacity for good positive human action,” he said.