WORLD

The battle to ban land mines

Support grows for Canada’s crusade

BRUCE WALLACE July 1 1997
WORLD

The battle to ban land mines

Support grows for Canada’s crusade

BRUCE WALLACE July 1 1997

The battle to ban land mines

WORLD

DIPLOMACY

Support grows for Canada’s crusade

BRUCE WALLACE

Few people are as skilful at separating the rich from their money as Diana, the dazzling Princess of Wales. Americans seem especially smitten by her, so the chance to ogle the princess at a charity ball in Washington last week was a choice ticket, even at $5,000 a plate. Her appearance generated the usual fussing about celebrity concerns: what would she wear (a daring, lowbacked red dress, as it turned out), speculation about who she might be seeing during her private engagements, and whether Barbara Walters would get that exclusive oneon-one interview she was seeking with the princess. But Washington also got a taste of Diana’s new serious side. She came, not to praise the Americans, but to lecture them. And her beef was the Clinton administration’s refusal to get on board a Canadian-inspired drive for a global ban on antipersonnel land mines by the end of this year. “In the name of humanity,” Diana urged her audience, whose ticket money contributed nearly $700,000 to care for victims of the hidden killers, “ban land mines and make the world a safer place.”

The Ottawa Process, as the crusade against land mines is known, hardly seems the kind of issue that needs the halo of another celebrity endorsement. The garbage of war still kills or injures 2,000 innocent people every month, almost all of them in places where the fighting is finished and battlefields have reverted to farmland or playgrounds. The Pope and South African President Nelson Mandela support a ban. The Red Cross and Vietnam veterans’ groups are all for it. Even military heroes like retired Gulf War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf say the land mine’s day of usefulness is over. Many governments that once balked at joining a ban are falling into line, not least Britain’s new Labour government, which endorsed the Ottawa Process during its first days in office. Its Tory predecessors had resisted to the end, even after Diana shamed them by taking her ever-present paparazzi to Angola for photos of her carefully step-

ping through a minefield and consoling limbless victims.

Bill Clinton will be tougher to crack than the sorry British Tories, although there are signs that Washington is warming to the Ottawa Process. For one thing, a majority of U.S. senators are now prepared to pass a law banning the use of antipersonnel mines by American forces, and they chastised the President this month for his hostility to the Canadian plan due to military objections.

Meanwhile, American attempts to work through the UN Conference on Disarmament—which includes large-scale mine producers such as Russia and China that have

remained outside the Ottawa Process—are going virtually nowhere. As a result, U.S. officials visited Ottawa on June 14 to privately explore, for the first time, whether there is enough flexibility in the Ottawa Process to allow them to sign on. The question for the Ottawa track’s supporters is how much leeway to give the Americans without gutting the final treaty of any significance. ‘We are very firm that we don’t want a treaty that is simply a rhetorical statement,” Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy told Maclean’s last week. “But we can look at how you can put some codicils in it.”

Axworthy is the father of the Ottawa Process, which has gained him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. Canada’s approach is founded on Axworthy’s spur-of-the-moment challenge to the world at a land mine conference in Ottawa last October. He had been struck, the minister says, by the “enormous commitment and energy” from the foreign officials and international aid workers who attended. But he worried that it would all dissipate once they left because “there was no logical next step to unlock the energies there.” So, with what an aide recalled as a “spontaneous gesture that was a political take on the mood in the room,” Axworthy invited everyone to return to Ottawa in December, 1997, to sign a new treaty swearing off antipersonnel land mines cold turkey. And that, said the aide, “is where divisions began.”

In the plodding club of international diplomacy, where deals are usually made privately and preferably in one of Geneva’s better hotels, Axworthy’s challenge to openly negotiate a ban on such short notice made officials squirm. “There was a lot of anger at Canada for going outside normal channels,” says Jody Williams, the Washington-based co-ordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and, like Axworthy, now a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. “The Belgians were angry that Canada ‘stole’ the leadership from them. The Belgian foreign minister told me: ‘I hate Axworthy.’ The Australians really hate him. But so what? The

world is moving beyond its dismay over Canada’s leadership on land mines.”

It may take Clinton a little longer yet to get there. During his first term in office, the U.S. President had actually been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to curb the spread of mines. International aid groups were complaining to Washington that economic development in countries like Cambodia was impossible as long as mine-littered farmland was still too dangerous to plow. And countries like Cana£ da were reluctant to spend => more money and risk lives re1 moving mines, without an un§ dertaking from governments 1 not to plant them again in k some future conflict. Clinton g responded through the Unit¿ ed Nations with a push for a | ban on the weapons “as soon § as possible.” The open time « frame allowed him to reassure skittish Pentagon generals that they would be under no immediate pressure to drop mines from their arsenal, particularly the million or so that American forces depend upon to slow down any invasion of South Korea from the North.

“The Pentagon’s job is to acquire weapons, not to go to a president asking to be stripped of them,” says Bobby Muller, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Washington and a leading campaigner for a ban. “Because Clinton didn’t serve, because of his deference to the military, he’s a coward when it comes to standing up to the Pentagon. I was in meetings where he told retired generals: ‘I can’t afford a break with the Joint Chiefs.’ So he promised them he would get rid of this weapon in a time frame they could live with.”

Clinton turned the issue over to his negotiators at the Geneva-based UN disarmament conference. The only worthwhile ban was a comprehensive one, he argued, which would keep the Russians, Chinese, Cubans, Iranians, Libyans and others from using the weapons too. But to most observers, sending the issue off to the byzantine politics of the disarmament conference was simply a way to buy time. In recent weeks, foreign diplomats say, the Americans have been desperate to show any measure of progress in Geneva, some smidgen of proof that Clinton’s approach could pay off. But the talks have sunk in procedural mud. “The process

is advancing by inches,” says Mark Moher, Canada’s ambassador to the Geneva talks. “But there is no progress on the substance of a land mine ban, and it will likely be a long time before any substantial work even gets under way here.”

The combination of the deadlock in Geneva and the growing public profile of the issue meant that Clinton had to give the Ottawa track another look. American officials had maintained a stony silence at meetings on the Ottawa Process. But some of the damaged cross-border feelings were repaired during Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s visit to Washington in March. There, according to the Canadians, Clinton agreed to at least get his officials to explain their antagonism. The thaw came at the June 14 meeting in Ottawa. “The Americans came to feel things out, not to deal,” says a Canadian official. “But they now know that the most they’ll get out of this is an exception for Korea.” Axworthy sounds ready to try for accommodation on Clinton’s Korea problem. ‘We’re not at a point where we’re going to be hard and inflexible,” said the minister. “There could be some areas for grandfathering or for providing some exceptionality.” Even the new British policy includes a clause that allows the armed forces to use mines “for a specific operation” to protect its

troops. The delicate issue for those seeking a full ban is how to accept exceptions without losing public support.

“Korea is a fig leaf,” argues activist Williams, suggesting that the Pentagon is still determined to keep its arsenal of sophisticated mines, which self-destruct after a certain period. If that exemption is made, she says, “we will walk.” But other anti-mine lobbyists argue that the treaty aims mainly to stigmatize mines, putting them in a category with chemical and biological weapons. ‘We want to create international norms of behavior, and for that we need the big players to sign up to Ottawa,” says Jerry White of the Landmine Survivors Network. “Countries break their agreements in the name of national security anyway, so I’m not a fundamentalist.”

Clearly many of the big names in the land mine club will be missing from any Ottawa agreement. Despite embracing Fidel Castro last year, Axworthy was rebuffed when he raised the land mine issue with the Cuban president. The Russians and Chinese are not interested. But banning land mines is an attractive issue for Axworthy. It demonstrates that there is still a global role for middle powers. It has a humanitarian dimension, because making countries land mine free is a condition for economic development and repatriating refugees. And then there is the Nobel Prize nomination. “It’s not my driving force,” Axworthy said of the prize. “The importance is that it gives some profile to the land mines issue.” Now he needs a deal by December to prove that fighting diplomatic battles in public can pay off. □