After the Nobel Peace Prize

An advocate of eradicating land mines continues the hard work

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The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 10. Writer Judith Majlath talked with Rae McGrath, a co-founder of the organization, about the land mine cause, the Nobel award, and the future.

Q What are your feelings about the award?

A The award will be useful in influencing those who are impressed by such things - it will open a few doors. But personally, I find the commitment of people in countries like Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique a much more satisfying experience. They take risks when they campaign. [In] those countries, the anti-mines campaigners are breaking new ground in a political environment where freedom of expression is a gray area. The Nobel award should be primarily for those voices in the campaign.

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Q The United States will not sign the Ottawa Treaty because it wants South Korean defense minefields to be exempt as a special case. How damaging is this decision for the credibility of the Ottawa Treaty?

A The US has expended energy in attempts to weaken the treaty. [Its argument about] Korea is unsustainable on two grounds: First, a defensive minefield is only a realistic defense strategy when covered by effective fire. If South Korea and its allies have that firepower, they can just as easily use nonexplosive obstacles in the place of minefields. If the defense forces can't maintain effective fire, then the minefield has no strategic value.

Second, the US must be aware that making such an exception would fatally weaken [the treaty] as an instrument of international legislation. Any nation wishing to use antipersonnel mines need simply claim a similar exception, citing the US position a precedent.

Q What happens after December when the Ottawa Treaty is signed, possibly by more than a hundred nations? Is the work of the ICBL over?

A The ICBL has supported Canada and other governments that took the initiative that led to a treaty. We've worked closely with those governments, and will continue to do so. Until the ban is watertight, fully observed, and universally ratified, the work will continue. In the new year we will turn our attention to those nations that haven't signed and ratified the Ottawa Treaty.

Q Some may argue that you have been tough on Western governments but have no way of putting pressure on China and Russia. Is that fair?

A No, it's not. Strategically it made sense to start with those nations. Their political system made campaigning easiest. That way we built up an international body of support, giving us the strength to tackle the more intransigent countries.

Q How will you do it?

A Our success has come from the fact that we don't see the political and diplomatic playground as the key area in which to campaign. We play by different rules ... but we have no hidden agenda.

The key factor is to take away the market for antipersonnel mines: If there are no customers, there is no profit to be made. Then the Chinese factories re-tool and begin making something else that sells. I would not be surprised to see the US government scurrying to sign and ratify the Ottawa Treaty before Russia gets it on the table. The Chinese may take a little longer, but I think they'll wind up their sales and transfers of mines in the next two years.

Q You have argued for military budgets to be used for land mine clearance. Is this realistic?

A Once a country is mined ... local clinics and surgical wards become overloaded. Uncertainty of access over mined roads hits trade badly. It makes peacekeeping difficult, sometimes impossible. Mines impact the electoral process: Candidates can't campaign and voters can't reach polling stations safely. The agricultural infrastructure is badly affected: Farmers can't plant in minefields, irrigation systems are inaccessible, etc. This adds to postwar food shortages and the need for food aid. Where does the money come from? Mostly from international aid and development budgets. Defense budgets can afford sums development budgets can't.

Q It sounds strange to hear you, a former soldier, calling for action that some might see as antimilitary.

A In a civilized world, the military exists to serve and protect civil society. It is subject to the law. There must be times when we place the needs of the world's poor and vulnerable communities above our fascination with designing ways to kill each other. Banning and eradicating land mines is such an opportunity. Happily, I'm supported in this view by many serving and former soldiers around the world.

* Judith Majlath is an ICBL member in Vienna and coordinator of the Austrian Working Group on Landmines.

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