The People’s Treaty
Antipersonnel landmines once were one of the most commonly used weapons. They were in the arsenal of most militaries, including Canada, and widely used in conflicts around the world. For those reasons it had been considered impossible to ban landmines despite the fact that they caused so much death, injury and misery for tens of thousands of civilians around the world.
That all changed on December 3, 1997 in Ottawa. On that day, 122 countries came to Canada to sign a treaty banning antipersonnel landmines. The impossible was indeed possible and the ban on landmines became a reality.
The treaty was the result of a unique partnership of a small group of like-minded states led by Canada, international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and civil society under the leadership of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). For its efforts driving the movement to ban landmines, the ICBL was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize along with its then Coordinator, Jody Williams.
Hundreds of thousands of people had been killed or injured by landmines in the preceding decades with the vast majority of those casualties being civilians. With the changing nature of conflict since the Second World War risks to civilian populations were greatly increased as the resulting high levels of casualties attest. In dozens of countries people started to organize to find ways to reduce the impact of landmines. Initial efforts were focussed on getting militaries to restrict the use of landmines and to get governments to provide better support to survivors.
When the ICBL was formed in 1992, the focus changed to banning the weapons largely because efforts to restrict, regulate or control use had been ignored. Organizations large and small began campaigning both nationally and internationally in support of a complete ban on landmines.
Naturally they were labelled as dreamers, unrealistic, or naïve. However, the ICBL and its members in more than 50 countries were not deterred. They lived or worked in communities that were adversely affected by landmines, many from conflicts that had ended years or even decades ago. They persevered bravely making their own personal stories public to force and sometimes shame governments into action. The fact that the treaty was opened for signatures in Ottawa just five years after the founding of the ICBL clearly demonstrates the power of the actions and campaigning by civil society.
Individuals through non-governmental organizations under the umbrella of the ICBL pushed governments into action and led the international community to negotiate in record time a treaty banning the use, trade, transfer, production and stockpiling of landmines. The treaty was also the first disarmament treaty to include victim assistance in its obligations.
Although individuals and civil society were the key force in the creation of the landmines treaty, only governments can sign international treaties. To me, that seemed unfair and didn’t really acknowledge the extraordinary impact of the efforts of ordinary people. Mines Action Canada (MAC), as the Canadian member of the ICBL, played host to all the international campaigners arriving in Ottawa in December 1997 and organized a series of public events to promote and celebrate this unique, life-saving treaty. As a volunteer with MAC at the time, I suggested we have a separate parallel signing where the general public could come and show their support by signing The People’s Treaty. This evolved into a major public event where thousands of local citizens came to the conference site to sign The People’s Treaty. It also went national and international.
To date, more than a million people have signed it in dozens of countries. These people have all endorsed the steps their governments have made in protecting innocent civilians from landmines, an inhumane and indiscriminate weapon, creating some peace in their communities.
By: Paul Hannon, Executive Director, Mines Action Canada