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UN: Campaigners Hope Bangkok Conference Will Help Eliminate Land Mines

Campaigners against the use of land mines have gathered in Bangkok this week for a UN-sponsored conference on the international treaty against their use. A nongovernmental organization called the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, has sent 250 delegates to the five-day event.

Prague, 15 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A large delegation of anti-land-mine campaigners is in Bangkok this week to urge countries to stop using, producing, and stockpiling the weapons.

A nongovernmental organization called the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) -- which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 -- has sent some 250 campaigners, de-miners, researchers, and land-mine survivors from 70 countries to a five-day conference in Bangkok convened under the auspices of the United Nations.

The event is the fifth annual meeting on the implementation of the 1997 convention against land mines. It also is the last formal gathering of officials from the 136 countries that have signed the so-called Ottawa Convention before a review conference scheduled in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of next year.

Sue Wixley, a spokeswoman for the ICBL, told RFE/RL by telephone today that the group is encouraged by an overall reduction around the world of governments that use land mines. But she says much work remains to be done by anti-land-mine campaigners.

"We're here to lobby governments to do all they can to ensure that the land-mine-ban treaty gets implemented. In Asia, there is a lot of work to be done. It's quite a bad neighborhood in terms of land mines. There are lots of producers here, lots of users, and huge stockpiles of antipersonnel land mines in this region," Wixley said.

Wixley said the use of antipersonnel land mines by any country is a violation of international law -- even if they have not signed the 1997 anti-land-mine convention. "Antipersonnel land mines are illegal under international law," she said. "They are inhumane and they are indiscriminant. So governments that continue to use antipersonnel land mines are violating international humanitarian law -- even those that haven't yet joined the treaty."

But she said the group has seen progress on the issue in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. She cited the U.S., which did not use antipersonnel land mines in the recent war in Iraq in spite of the fact that the U.S. is not a signatory to the anti-land-mine treaty.

"In fact, we were very encouraged by the United States in Iraq. They had brought antipersonnel land mines to the region and we were concerned that they might use them as they had in the 1991 Gulf War. And they didn't, in fact. We feel encouraged by that because we believe that allied forces such as the United Kingdom, that are member states, put pressure on the United States -- saying that they cannot use this weapon," Wixley said.

Wixley explained that progress can be made on the issue of eliminating land mines even if major producers and stockpilers of the weapons -- like Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the United States -- continue to reject the 1997 convention against them.

"Some of the states that are not party to the mine-ban treaty are, in fact, following the rules set by the treaty," she said. "So even though they may not have joined, there still have been a number of countries that have instituted a moratorium on mine exports. China is one of them. There is pressure on governments not to use mines any more. There is pressure to declare information on stockpiles of antipersonnel land mines and also to start destroying them. So we are working in a two-pronged way. On the one hand, [we are] trying to promote the treaty -- and there is a lot of work in the region to be done on that. But also [we are] trying to encourage governments to abide by the norm that has been set where antipersonnel land mines are completely prohibited."

Wixley said Afghanistan, in particular, is a country where a lot of progress is expected. "It was very exciting and encouraging that Afghanistan joined the treaty last year. And that will make a huge difference in dealing with the problem in Afghanistan. It will mean, hopefully, increased funding for mine action -- for clearance of mines, as well as more funding for victims of land mines. Working with the government in Afghanistan to make sure that there is assistance available for victims and reintegration possibilities -- training and so on that will help victims get jobs and make livelihoods after their accidents," she said.

Wixley said it would be wrong for Afghans to blame their land-mine problem solely on foreign troops, such as the Soviet military forces that left millions of unmarked and unmapped antipersonnel mines in the country during the 1980s. "According to information we have, and I think it is internationally recognized, almost every party that was involved in the conflict in Afghanistan used mines," she said. "It's true, certainly, that the Soviets used mines. But many other forces used mines, too, in the past."

And that, Wixley explained, is exactly why it was crucial for Hamid Karzai's Afghan Transitional Administration to sign on to the land-mine ban before it could obtain funding for mine clearance and rehabilitation programs.

"It's very hard for countries to start to deal with their problem of land mines unless they actually give up the weapon. Donors find it really difficult to keep funding mine clearance if they know that the weapon could be used again. So it's only in countries such as Afghanistan, that have taken that very important step of joining the treaty, where donors start agreeing to fund more and to pour money in to deal with mine clearance," Wixley said.

Several nonsignatories have sent observers to the session in Bangkok this week. Among them are China, Vietnam, and Laos. But a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Bangkok said the United States is not sending any official observers. An observer from Pakistan had been expected at the conference but had not arrived in time for the opening today.