Canada and the Landmine Issue, Twenty Years On

April 4 came and went this year with virtually no national mention of the international ban on antipersonnel landmines, which was one of Canada’s most significant triumphs in the area of ‘niche diplomacy’.  International Mine Awareness Day, marked annually on April 4, was proclaimed by the UN several years ago, and is designed to maintain momentum on a struggle not yet won. It was especially significant this year because 2012 marks two anniversaries: the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), and the fifteenth anniversary of the international convention banning anti-personnel landmines, commonly known as the “Ottawa Convention”.

The story of the achievement of a ban on antipersonnel landmines has been told in many places, and it has a number of well-known elements: the founding of the International Campaign in 1992, the indefatigable work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the roles of Jean Chretien and Lloyd Axworthy, and their mobilization of the international community between 1994 and 1997. All of this was capped by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 to the ICBL and Jody Williams, its leader and spokesperson.

Its record of rapid successes world-wide has also been noted elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the landmine saga is celebrated on the walls of United Nations headquarters in New York, on a plaque in the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa, and in humanitarian agencies in Geneva and throughout the world.

But how can one explain the absence of even the smallest acknowledgement of achievement by the Government of Canada twenty years later? It’s understandable that enthusiasm has ebbed as the years have passed. The princesses and VIPs have moved on.  In some quarters, it’s assumed that this war has already been won. Few Canadians realize that clearance activities are now more extensive than ever, and that new fronts are still opening (in Libya and Syria, to name only the most recent cases). The landmine saga is far from over. It will demand concerted efforts on many fronts for years to come.

The voice of the ICBL is still active and influential internationally, working on other similar fronts, like cluster munitions. In Canada, Mines Action Canada, the Ottawa-based advocacy group which did outstanding work on the convention itself, has a central role in producing the annual Landmine Monitor, the key survey of the state of the world in this area. The Canadian Landmine Foundation, headquartered in both Winnipeg and Waterloo, raises funds to clear landmines around the world, providing unique Canadian capabilities where possible.

If there is one perplexing question twenty years on, it’s about Canada. The bulk numbers relating to Canada’s financial contributions to landmine clearance in the past several years have been adequate, with Canada ranking about fifth in total contributions. But when one parses the figures, those contributions are distorted by massive contributions to mine clearance in Afghanistan, with little for mine clearance in other parts of the world where Canada was once a leading contributor, like Cambodia or Mozambique. And we’ve totally dropped off the map on assistance to victims of landmines and on the destruction of munitions stockpiles, where Canada was once the global leader. More disturbing still, all of this funding now comes from DFAIT, following what appears to have been an abrupt decision by CIDA that landmines are no longer a development issue.

What the figures don’t show is another aspect of Canada’s diminishing role abroad. We were once among the leaders of a core group which shaped the directions of the landmine effort world-wide. But for several years our official delegations have grown smaller, their voices have been silenced, and their intellectual contributions have been next to nothing.  The international community writ large has one fascinating question: “Where is Canada?”

A change of government alone does not explain the slow phase-out of Canadian contributions to anything other than our effort in Afghanistan. Peter MacKay, who served as Conservative foreign minister until mid-2007, was a solid supporter of what had been a non-partisan approach to the landmine issue under the previous two governments.  Maxime Bernier, MacKay’s successor, at least made an effort on the issue, although he proved both inept and embarrassing. His two successors then allowed Canadian contributions to atrophy completely. True, the long Liberal shadow of Lloyd Axworthy hangs over the landmine issue. But this is one area in which doing the right thing is also the popular thing among Canadians of all stripes, who have been highly supportive of an initiative on which Canada achieved widespread praise and recognition.

Recent developments are not promising on this file. With CIDA out of the picture, DFAIT’s recent budget reductions leave its future capacity open to question. Even if money were available, the government seems incapable of cooperating quickly and effectively with the international community in getting funding to the right place at the right time. The UN needs action, now, for example, to complete the destruction of Libya’s stocks of landmines and other munitions. But this requires quick decision-making and an active Canadian presence abroad, both capacities which this government seems to have lost.

“Where is Canada?” is the question. The landmine issue is, in many senses, a barometer of Canada’s capabilities and reputation abroad. If we fail on this issue, on which we were once the world leader, it marks a broader failure of a major part of our diplomacy. There is no reason for not remaining leaders on a crucial humanitarian issue in which there is no conflict with the government’s other foreign policy objectives. But why the government has no interest in this issue, and what it proposes to do in the absence of credible action, are good questions which it has yet to address. In the meantime, the question posed by many in the international community is a good one: “Where, indeed, is Canada?”

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