World still far from mine-free, 25 years since landmark treaty

Created by Swiss sculptor Daniel Berset in 1997, the Broken Chair serves as a chilling reminder of the catastrophic impact of landmines on civilians. (Keystone/Magali Girardin)

Twenty-five years since the Mine Ban Treaty was signed with the aim of ridding the world of landmines once and for all, the use of mines is on the rise again in parts of the globe. We spoke to Humanity & Inclusion, which has been involved in mine-clearing activities and victim assistance for over 40 years, to hear how far we have come since 1997, and how far there is still to go.

Unveiled 25 years ago outside the United Nations, the Broken Chair is one of Geneva’s most striking landmarks. At 12 metres tall and weighing over five tonnes, the three-legged chair towers above the Place des Nations as a symbol of the ongoing campaign against landmines – the jagged remains of the chair’s fourth leg representing a missing limb, a reminder of their catastrophic impact on civilians.

Created by Swiss sculptor Daniel Berset, the Broken Chair was made for the NGO Humanity & Inclusion (HI), previously known as Handicap International, as part of its campaign calling on governments to sign the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty or the Ottawa Treaty, in December 1997.

The treaty, which came into force in March 1999, bans the production, transfer and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines and obliges countries to assist victims of such weapons. Signed by 162 states representing more than 80 per cent of the world’s countries, the treaty led to the destruction of millions of landmines and a fall in casualty numbers, with the use of landmines now widely stigmatised across the world. The United States is one of the countries notably absent from the treaty, along with Russia, China and India among others.

In recent years, however, the use of landmines has been on the rise. As new conflicts have erupted in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently Ukraine, these lethal and indiscriminate weapons are once again being used around the world, with civilians often the first collateral victims.

“I would love to say that everything is better now but unfortunately that’s not really the case,” Daniel Suda-Lang, director of Humanity & Inclusion Switzerland, told Geneva Solutions. “It’s been 25 years since the Ottawa Treaty in 1997, which was also the year that we [Humanity & Inclusion] received the Nobel Peace Prize and built the Broken Chair on the Place des Nations. It was a big year, and we were very optimistic at the time that we would really achieve real change.”

“And I think we did, together with our partners, because during these years almost 100 states have destroyed around 55 million mines all over the world. So on the one side, I think that’s a real achievement.”

Mine casualties on the rise

Casualties from landmines began to fall since the treaty came into force, dropping from 9,000 casualties worldwide in 2001 to around 4,000 in 2014, and some 28 countries have completed mine clearance programmes. Humanity & Inclusion has been working with national governments and local actors in countries around the world, from Mozambique to Colombia, to help clear the remnants of war that are often fatal for civilians.

But since 2015, mine casualties have risen dramatically as fresh conflicts have broken out around the world and warring sides have turned to mines to cause the maximum damage to their enemy.

“Unfortunately, what we’re observing today is that the casualties are going up again, and this is linked to all the new conflicts that we have,” said Suda-Lang.

Civilians are overwhelmingly the victims of these kinds of weapons. Not only are they mostly used on populated and urban areas, but they also leave large areas contaminated by explosive remnants of war for years and sometimes decades after the fighting has finished. Today, it’s estimated that around 70 civilians are victims of explosive weapons every day.

Ukraine littered with landmines

Landmines have been widely used in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February this year, with civilians paying a high price. With an estimated 160,000 square kilometres of the country contaminated by landmines, Ukraine is now one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Russian forces have used antipersonnel mines in at least four regions since the start of the war, including Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Sumy, according to Amnesty International.

“It’s very frightening that we’re now seeing landmines being used again just a couple of hundred kilometres away from us,” said Suda-Lang.

Landmines are not the only type of explosive weapon being used in Ukraine. Cluster munitions, which spread multiple explosive “bomblets” over a wide area, have been used by Russian armed forces in populated areas multiple times since the conflict began in February this year.

Like landmines, cluster bombs cause immediate and long-term civilian harm, leaving dangerous submunitions scattered over wide areas that can kill and main for years after the fighting has finished.

Ukraine forces are also thought to have used the weapons at least once, according to a report by Amnesty International, which has called on both countries to immediately end their use of the weapons and join the international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions known as the Oslo Convention, which was signed in 2008 after years of campaigning by groups, including Humanity & Inclusion.

“We’re very shocked and disappointed that those arms are being used again,” said Suda-Lang. “As with landmines, cluster munitions cause huge harm to civilians because they are very indistinct. When they fall from the sky they damage a very large zone, and only about 40 per cent of the little ‘bomblets’ explode when they hit the ground.”

“They stay on the ground and active for a very long time afterwards, sometimes 10 or 20 or 30 years, long after the conflict,” he said. “Both landmines and cluster munitions often really contaminate a whole country for a generation or even more, which is very traumatic.”

Humanity & Inclusion has been on the ground in Ukraine since March this year providing humanitarian support for civilians affected by the conflict, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or older people. However, with the war rapidly evolving and each day increasingly unpredictable, it is too dangerous for the organisation to undertake any demining activities at present.

Suda-Lang said he expects it will take many years to clear the country of the remnants of landmines and cluster munitions, long after the fighting has finished.

“Before even the first conflict in Ukraine in 2014 there were still explosive remnants of war from the second world war,” he said. “So we think that it will take decades to really clear the country.”

Mines mistaken for toys

Warring parties are also increasingly using more unconventional or improvised mines, Suda-Lang said, which are harder to identify and clear. This poses new challenges to the efforts of organisations such as Humanity & Inclusion to rid areas of mines, and puts civilians far more at risk of accidentally coming into contact with the weapons.

Tragically, children are disproportionately at risk of death or injury from landmines, Suda-Lang explains, often accidentally coming into contact with the weapons while playing or exploring outside.

“We’re seeing now that there are a lot of handmade mines and they are very difficult to recognise and difficult to clear,” he said. “Mine risk education is getting more complicated, and the demining is getting more complicated as well because the explosion mechanisms are not always the same.”

“Landmines can now have different forms and different materials,” he continued. “In the beginning, they were more or less easy to recognise because they always had the same shape and the same material, so we could find them with metal detectors and we could very easily teach people, especially children, what a mine looks like.

“Today, that’s very different, because 50 per cent of new mines are homemade. They use everything that they can find to build a mine. It can be in a plastic bottle, it can even be hidden in a toy. We basically have to tell children today that they can't touch anything that they find on the ground.”

New, more sophisticated “smart mines” are also posing a new threat to civilians, Suda-Lang said, with more advanced systems that can be detonated from a long distance away to cause the maximum harm.

Read also: Countries reach agreement on curbing use of explosive weapons

As more warring parties continue to use explosive weapons with no regard for human life, Suda-Lang says organisations such as Humanity & Inclusion must continue to do what they can to protect civilians and encourage states to do the same. The NGO will be heading to Dublin, Ireland in November as states meet to adopt a new international agreement against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Like the Oslo Convention and the Ottawa Treaty before it, the latest treaty is part of the decades-long fight to better protect civilians trapped in the crossfire of war.

“Since there have been humans there have always been conflicts, and I think people who are in those conflicts just look for a way to cause the most harm possible to the other side,” said Suda-Lang. “Whereas 100 years ago wars were really on the battlefield, today they’re in cities, because this is the most cruel and impactful thing for them.”

“It’s hard to be optimistic with all that is happening in the world,” he continued. “And I think it will get more and more complicated to protect civilians, but we will continue to do it.”