by Petra Schroeter
Executive Director, Handicap International Switzerland

15 years ago, on 1 March 1999, the Ottawa Treaty banning the production, use, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines entered into force. At the heart of the civil society stakeholders’ concerns who drove its creation: victims and their protection. Fifteen years later, 163 States have signed the Treaty and committed to respect its principles. However, the battle is far from over. On the one hand, anti-personnel mines are still claiming too many victims in affected countries; with one new victim reported every two hours. On the other hand, certain countries, including the United States, have not yet signed the Treaty. More troubling still: some States have used these weapons recently, such as Syria. Handicap International has been working alongside victims of anti-personnel mines for more than 30 years. In Geneva, where the United Nations has its European headquarters, the organisation has created a symbol designed to send a strong signal of solidarity to victims: the Broken Chair. Erected in 1997, from its location on the Place des Nations, at the heart of the International Geneva, this sculpture serves as a reminder of the importance of assisting victims.

The Ottawa Treaty: a milestone in the battle against landmines
The entry into force of the Ottawa Treaty fifteen years ago represents a real victory for civil society. The drafting of the text was made possible thanks to the launch of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), in 1992, by six non-governmental organisations, including Handicap International. Opened for signature in 1997 in Ottawa, by the time it entered into force in 1999, 122 States had signed the Treaty out of which 71 had ratified it. Today, 163 States have committed to banning landmines. Building on this commitment, the State Parties have recorded many achievements in the battle against landmines. Their efforts, bolstered by actions from civil society, have resulted in a fivefold reduction in the annual number of victims of these deadly weapons; 4’000 square kilometre of land have been demined and 70 million landmines stockpiled by States have been destroyed. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go towards a world completely free from landmines.

Some States have not yet signed the Treaty-including the United States, China and Russia, member States of the United Nations Security Council. On the 3rd Review Conference held in June 2014 in Maputo, US delegation said that they will not produce any anti-personal munitions that are not compliant with the Ottawa convention in the future. Handicap International welcomes this announcement by the U.S. delegation, after years as a non-signatory State and is calling on the U.S. to put this decision into practice by signing the treaty as soon as possible. Unfortunately, other events have slightly tarnished this success. It was proven that one State Party used anti-personnel mines in 2013: Yemen. Two other non-signatory States also used these weapons in 2013: Syria and Myanmar. In the 66 countries and territories still contaminated by anti-personnel mines, one new victim is unfortunately recorded every two hours.

Behind the Treaty: victims and their families
At the heart of concerns, and of the initiative that led civil society stakeholders to join forces to ban anti-personnel mines, are the innocent victims of these deadly weapons. Despite the enormous progress that has been made, the many square metres of land that have been demined and made safe, anti-personnel mines are still claiming too many innocent victims, paying the price for conflicts that, in many cases, are already resolved. As an illustration, civilians account for 78% of new victims of anti-personnel mines in contaminated countries. Children make up almost half of this figure. Innocent victims, killed, injured or mutilated by these silent weapons. An accident involving an anti-personnel mine, whether fatal or not, has long-term consequences on the victim’s life, and the lives of those around them. The legacy remains, after a country has been demined and after the destruction of the last landmine in the vicinity of a village. Anti-personnel mines have an impact on every aspect of the lives of populations in contaminated regions. An injured victim and his or her family must be cared for appropriately and monitored over the long term, to support their reintegration into society and return to a more or less normal life.

This is why Handicap International places such great emphasis on assisting victims. The organisation has defined six key dimensions to guarantee improvements to victims’ quality of life and that of their families: understanding each victim’s specific needs, medical care, rehabilitation care, psychosocial support, social-economic inclusion and advocacy actions aimed at political authorities to ensure the application of national laws and policies governing the rights of people with disabilities. These steps are essential to ensure the feasibility and implementation of genuine improvements in the lives of affected individuals.

Since 1999, we have observed significant progress in relation to the vital importance of understanding and improving responses to the needs of victims of landmines and other explosives of war. These improvements are reflected in better information on care possibilities and available services, as well as access to these services. However, access to services for all victims and their families, and the availability and sustainability of these services, remain problematic in certain countries due to declining international assistance on victim assistance, or the emergence or intensification of conflicts. And this is despite the efforts of the State Parties to meet their obligations in relation to assisting victims. Consequently, the majority of victims are still struggling to access the benefits of actions being undertaken in this area.

The State Parties must therefore continue their efforts in relation to the funding granted for long-term assistance for victims. The State Parties have recognised this need, as demonstrated, in 2012, by the USD 32 million of international funds allocated for victim assistance, compared with 30 million in 2011, and a total budget for action against landmines of USD 681 million. This is the most visible demonstration of the commitments undertaken by governments in signing the Ottawa Treaty and pledging to support victims.

Handicap International: a historically strong commitment against injustice and barbarity
Thus, in 1992, Handicap International was one of the founders, together with five other non-governmental organisations, of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). On 3 December 1997, the Ottawa Treaty was opened for signature at the headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva. The first States signed the Treaty, effectively banning anti-personnel mines. It was a historic moment. This was the first time that the international community had banned a conventional weapon. A few days later, on 10 December, the members of the ICBL were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Victims are the inspiration and at the heart of the ICBL’s action and this international recognition.

Handicap International has spent the last 30 years fighting to bring assistance to victims of anti-personnel landmines. Created in 1982 by two young French doctors in response to the horrific landmine injuries they witnessed among Cambodian refugees in camps in Thailand, the organisation was one of the pioneers in assisting victims of these explosive remnants of war. In the beginning, Handicap International dispensed the necessary care as far as possible using the available resources. Over time, the organisation developed technically and expanded geographically. Today, it is active in around 60 countries, implementing four of the five pillars of the action against landmines: mine clearance (demining), risk-education, international advocacy and victim assistance, as well as operating in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. It works alongside people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, taking action and bearing witness in order to respond to their essential needs, improve their living conditions

The Broken Chair, a strong symbol of solidarity towards victims
The Broken Chair was erected on 18 August 1997 on the Place des Nations, opposite the Office of the United Nations in Geneva, with the aim of calling on all States to sign the Ottawa Treaty and honour their commitments to assisting victims and demining territories contaminated by anti-personnel mines. This strong symbol of solidarity towards victims is one of the most photographed sights in Geneva, and Handicap International is counting on this high visibility to remind people of the importance of assisting victims. Designed by the Geneva artist Daniel Berset at the request of Handicap International, the 12-metre high sculpture is intended to serve as a reminder to the international community and each citizen of the world of his or her duty to assist victims and show their solidarity.


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Credit photo: Johanna de Tessières, Handicap International
Democratic Republic of Congo, Grace, 8, amputated following a leg infection

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