Landmine ban failing

The recent Oslo convention banning landmines marks an important step forward, but it also illustrate

Attempts to ban landmines and eliminate the humanitarian crisis posed by unexploded remnants of war are being hampered by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) which continue to nake use of the weapons.

These NSAGs, including guerrilla fighters, rebel groups, liberation movements, and de facto governments, rarely have legal status and operate in shadows where international law is all too easily ignored.

A new convention, opened for signature in Oslo last week, bans cluster bombs, which split off into hundreds of ‘bomblets’ that can lie unexploded and kill or maim civilians for years after a conflict has ended.

It is arguably the most significant disarmament agreement since the 1997 treaty, which outlawed anti-personnel landmines - specifically those designed to harm individuals, in signatory states. The success of the treaty has been widely acknowledged.

However, the 2008 Annual Report from Landmine Monitor shows that, in most countries, NSAGs are more likely to use landmines than government forces.

“Most present-day armed conflicts take place within states and involve one or more non-state actors fighting either government forces or other armed groups,” explains Pascal Bongard, of Geneva Call, an NGO set up to persuade NSAGs to adhere to humanitarian law.

“Because of their low cost and easy availability, mines have become a weapon of choice for many non-state actors worldwide, significantly exceeding the number of mine-using states. Some even manufacture their own anti-personnel mines. Many groups continue to resort to landmines – Colombian guerrillas and Burmese opposition groups are major users and producers. Some point to the enemy’s superior fire power, claiming that anti-personnel mines are necessary for their defence.”

The groups are diverse: in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, drugs gangs plant landmines around illegal coca fields to protect them. Marxist terror group FARC is among the largest user and producer of landmines in the world, causing hundreds of casualties annually. In Ecuador this year, a group of FARC rebels were blown up while fleeing through one of their own minefields during a Colombian military attack on one of the rebel camps.

Anti-personnel mines are also employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan when targeting the Afghan army and international forces. A spokesperson for the Taliban reportedly confirmed the planting of new mines for this purpose.

When NSAGs control mine-affected areas, they can also interrupt or prohibit humanitarian mine-clearing action. Geneva Call, set up in 2000, works to persuade NSAGs to sign a Deed of Commitment containing the same obligations as the Mine Ban Treaty. Signatures are publicised, and the potential political cost of bad publicity can act as a deterrent to breaking the terms of the agreement.

To date, 35 NSAGs from 10 countries, including Burma, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan, have signed the Deed of Commitment. Other NSAGs have taken steps against anti-personnel mines, although they have not signed up.

Despite this progress, it is a complex problem, due to the nature of NSAGs and attitudes towards them. Firstly, Geneva Call’s mission has faced mixed reactions. The act of entering into dialogue with violent or illegal non-state armed groups is seen by some as controversial and legitimising. Turkey has opposed Geneva Call’s engagement with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who it views as a “terrorist” organisation. In India, there have been problems with foreign Geneva Call staff obtaining travel permits and visas.

Secondly, the frequently fluid or shifting command structure of non-state groups means that their leadership doesn’t always have the capacity to enforce a decision against landmines. They are often beset by factionalism and fragmentation, so commitments don’t necessarily bind the whole group.
Finally, a lack of resources can also limit the capacity of groups to eliminate mine bans. A recent Geneva Call report quotes one NSAG leader as saying, “AP [anti-personnel] mines are cheap to produce and acquire and they are easy to use. Removing them and destroying stockpiles can be incredibly expensive and requires expertise.”

As states agree to destroy their stockpile of cluster munitions, activists are hopeful. “We hope that this new convention will continue to stigmatise these weapons and prohibit their usage,” says Richard Moyes, Policy and Research Director for Landmine Action. “We can't guarantee anything, but it sets an expectation of how countries will behave in conflict, constraining the practice of states. This could also affect NSAGs by inhibiting production and trade.”

Preliminary research by Geneva Call, however, shows that at least four non-state groups are users of cluster munitions, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Serb militia in Croatia. The problem is nowhere near the scale of landmines, but demonstrates that, despite this great step forward, governments alone cannot rid the world of these destructive remnants of conflict.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.