GENEVA — Negotiators for and against tighter controls on land mine use ended two-and-a-half years of talks May 3 exhausted and with a collective feeling of discomfort.
But they had succeeded in shaping an international consensus between the opposing humanitarian and military sides, as well as the 55 countries taking part.
Right until the last days of United Nations conference, which reviewed the 1980 Second Protocol on Certain Conventional Weapons, the risk remained high that most governments would drop the issue for at least five years. Delegates on all sides described their concessions as painful, difficult, and necessary.
The new rules prohibit the use of all undetectable antipersonnel land mines, the so-called dumb mines that are blamed for the vast majority of casualties caused by mines laid in recent conflicts.
Also, for the first time, the rules of the agreement will apply to conflicts within a nation as well as those between nations.
Yet the results of the talks are not expected to be enough to halt the humanitarian disaster wrought by antipersonnel land mines, which kill around 400 people a month, diplomats say.
The talks, however, have catalyzed deeper changes in how international humanitarian law may be written and agreed upon in the future. The new rules on land mine use have ventured deeper into traditional arms control and disarmament terrain than any other treaty before it.
Although the 55 nations were far from agreeing to ban antipersonnel land mines altogether, political pressure can quickly push individual countries to avoid their use.
In just the seven months since the conference opened in Vienna last October, 25 countries have more or less declared a unilateral ban on antipersonnel land mine production, use, and transfers.
So far, the driving force behind the mine ban has come from an international coalition of more than 450 nongovernmental organizations, plus the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In 1993 the coalition persuaded then-French President Franois Mitterrand to request the land-mine-control conference. And along with the ICRC, the coalition has managed to convince a total of 40 countries to commit themselves unilaterally to a comprehensive antipersonnel mine ban.
In the last session of the conference, Canada, one of the 40, jumped ahead of the pack by announcing a new multilateral agenda to keep the ban momentum going.
The fall will see a new resolution brought forward at the UN General Assembly. But already, regional pro-ban efforts are multiplying.
Within the European Union, countries like Germany, Ireland, and Belgium can be expected to continue lobbying for a pro-ban EU policy by addressing the particular concerns of hesitant member states.
And in the Americas, Canada and St. Lucia are gathering support to have the Organization of American States declare the Western Hemisphere an antipersonnel land-mine-free zone at the annual OAS council meeting in Panama this June. Although a total ban is unlikely in the near future, the diplomatic momentum toward that goal promises to continue in coming months.