25 years of the Mine Ban Treaty: a good news story?

IssueFebruary - March 2023
Feature by Brian Jones

On 3 December 1997, the representatives of 122 nations met in Ottawa, Canada, to sign the Mine Ban Treaty or, to use its formal name, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction.

This treaty is regarded as one of the most successful disarmament agreements in history, with 164 nations signed up.

The trade in anti-personnel landmines has virtually stopped, millions of mines have been destroyed, and thousands of square kilometres of land have been cleared.

More than 30 states have been declared free of landmines since 1997, with Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe likely to join that list in the next few years. The UK recently declared itself landmine-free, after the final Falkland Islands mines were destroyed.

Deaths and injuries from landmines and unexploded munitions have fallen from over 50 a day in 1997 to currently around 15 a day – which both shows how much has been achieved and how much more mine clearance needs to happen.

Landmines in Korea

In addition to the 164 signed-up states, many other countries are in de facto compliance as well. The stigma against landmines is very strong, and even non-member states are responding to international pressure and mainly respecting the spirit of the agreement.

The US government has not signed the Mine Ban Treaty, but has said it will not produce or use anti-personnel mines. It is also the world’s largest individual contributor to mine-clearance efforts.

On the other hand, the US’s new policy on landmines specifically excludes the Korean peninsula: ‘the policy does undertake to destroy all anti-personnel landmines in stockpiles not required for the defence of the Republic of Korea’.

The Mine Ban Treaty changed the international landscape in more subtle ways too. It brought a humanitarian focus to disarmament for the first time, and was a striking example of civil society and smaller states (rather than, for instance, UN security council members) driving treaty formulation.

This new ‘humanitarian’ approach to disarmament next addressed cluster munitions. Cluster munitions fire out lots of ‘submunitions’, often hundreds of tiny explosive bomblets at a time. Many of these fail to explode immediately, effectively becoming anti-personnel landmines.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, agreed in 2010 has been ratified by 110 states so far.

Israel, Russia, and the US are some of the states which haven’t signed either the Mine Ban Treaty or the Cluster Munitions Convention. However, however much they try to ignore these treaties, states are affected by the change in international norms.

For example, despite the US proclaiming its ‘right’ to cluster munitions, no more cluster bombs are being manufactured in the USA. The last US-based producer, Textron, closed its production line because the US military stopped buying cluster bombs, and they could not find more buyers because so many countries have signed the Cluster Munitions Convention.

Problems remain

But the success story of the Mine Ban Treaty – and the progress made in many countries across the world – should not lead us to ignore the challenges that remain.

It is shocking that Cambodia is still heavily contaminated by unexploded munitions after 30 years of mine-clearing operations, and that Angola, where princess Diana so famously raised awareness 25 years ago, is still so badly affected.

"But the success story of the Mine Ban Treaty should not lead us to ignore the challenges that remain."

Meanwhile, new landmines are being laid in Ukraine and Yemen. Conflicts in parts of West Africa and the Middle East have led to a sharp increase in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), leaving a legacy of contamination that will almost certainly take decades to address.

These hard truths tell us that a renewed focus is required on the world’s landmine problem: we cannot afford to neglect those countries with a long-standing legacy just because we must rightly respond to new and emerging crises. To do so would be a betrayal of communities that have been terrorised and impoverished by landmines for generations.

So, the global community – governments and civil society – needs to regain and maintain momentum in order to save and change even more lives, every single day, and finally rid the world of landmines.

In practical terms, this means money (lots of it – but probably less than what was spent on hosting the latest football World Cup) for landmine clearance, and continuing to call on all states who have not yet joined the treaty to do so without delay. The need to remove and destroy landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance is no less urgent than it was 25 years ago.

Topics: land mines