1996 Peace Work: Chugging Along
In October of 1996, Canada had set up an international meeting of governments to discuss a landmine ban. There were no firm strings attached although there was broad agreement that the weapon caused large numbers of civilian casualties long after conflicts had ended. Even the United States sent a representative to Ottawa in 1996.
Civil society people were invited to attend and I went with UN Association branch member Diana Armour. The main event was at the old Union Train Station across from the Chateau Laurier, transformed into the Conference Centre. It was an impressive venue, several winding stairways, dark wood and marble, a closed underground passageway to the Chateau.
Government delegates collected around a long table in the Hall surrounded by those in theatre seating. Diana and I sat up high, just behind the Egyptian delegation, looking down from the back. The closing meeting rolled on. Words, not deeds. Lloyd Axworthy took over at the microphone. Then a remarkable thing happened. He declared, without agreement from attending foreign delegates, that Canada was calling on states to return to Ottawa in a year to sign a new treaty banning anti-personnel mines.
There was a short silence - a gasp? - and then all around, people started applauding loudly and getting to their feet. It was obvious that the support was spotty because there were large blocks of people, including those at the table, still sitting.
I looked at Diana. “Did you hear what I heard?” We stood and cheered but we were as surprised as most everyone. We learned later that key members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines had been told privately by the Canadian delegation that the Foreign Minister was going for a new treaty. So get ready for it! (The Egyptians weren’t ready either; they weren’t standing, and still haven’t signed the treaty.)
It would turn out that the landmine effort by Canada was one of several progressive initiatives of that era - “human security”, the International Criminal Court, a child soldiers protocol, the responsibility to protect doctrine to prevent genocide and major war crimes. Later would follow the cluster munitions convention that came out of the Ottawa Treaty critique of weapons triggered by civilians. Axworthy also made a gallant effort to pressure NATO members to drop the nuclear weapons component of the alliance's strategic concept. For that, Canada became known as the “nuclear nag”. For all of this effort, you need pesky civil society activists to keep pushing, but you also need a friendly government and a leader within ready to take risks. Much of the dramatic shift in foreign policy was possible because of the end of the Cold War, but practically speaking, it started in a train station in Ottawa.
A colleague was visiting from out of Canada a few years ago, and I pointed out the building where the Ottawa Treaty started. He was thrilled, and insisted I take a picture of him with the façade in behind. He wanted to share a piece of our history too.
By: Robin Collins, Chair of the Group of 78's Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament and Arms Control, is Secretary of the Board for the World Federalist Movement – Canada, and is a former Chair of Mines Action Canada (1998-2002).