When Ottawa changed the world

An international agreement that can save lives. Difficult negotiations produce poor results. The United States which, despite good speeches, refused to join. Civil society organizations demanding more political leadership. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Yes, it’s at COP15 on biodiversity taking place starting this week at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal. But this was also the scenario that prevailed before a pivotal moment in Canadian diplomatic history a quarter of a century ago.

In 1996, faced with a deadlock in UN negotiations to reach an agreement banning anti-personnel mines, which kill more than 30,000 people annually, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, challenged the member states of the United Nations united.

He gave the international community a year to pull itself together and agree on a formal agreement to abandon the “weapons of cowards”. His main allies? A wide range of non-governmental organizations have come together under the banner of the Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

Together, they achieved a real success.

On December 3, 1997, 122 countries ratified the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines after a year of intense negotiations.

In the same year, the ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams, received the Nobel Peace Prize. The honor fell directly to Canada.

In the holding of COP15 in Montreal on 25e The anniversary of this exemplary success story has gone almost unnoticed this week. However, more than ever, we need to remember that the story of David and Goliath is not confined to the Bible and the Koran. In real life, the unlikely hero once wore a maple leaf sling.

“I still get tears in my eyes when I think we did it,” Mark Gwozdecky, one of the diplomats at the heart of the negotiating team that brought about the Ottawa treaty, said today. We did what no one thought possible. We challenged the great powers who did not want such an agreement. And we had to deal with some of our closest allies who were a little bit angry,” he recalled. Read: the United States that never abided by the agreement, but respects its broad outlines.

In fact, after Lloyd Axworthy issued his call to action, Mark Gwozdecky and his teammates had no idea how they were going to get to the finish line. The months of diplomacy that followed were rarely intense.

To succeed in banning anti-personnel mines, Canada completely sidestepped the UN manual and imposed its own process. “When negotiations take place under the terms of the United Nations, it is done by consensus and therefore it is the lowest common denominator that prevails. We have freed ourselves from the rules of the UN and it is the highest human values ​​that come first,” explained the former assistant deputy minister of Global Affairs Canada.

And we can’t talk about arguing with the United Nations. What is now called the “Ottawa process” took place with the blessing of the secretary general of the international organization.

The results speak for themselves. After the treaty entered into force in 1999, the number of mine victims dropped from around 30,000 per year to just over 4,000 on average. Tens of millions of mines have been destroyed worldwide and 30 countries have been completely cleared. Today, the convention has been ratified by 164 countries.

And the lessons for the Canadian government in these times of major environmental negotiations? “When there is an integrated network of non-governmental organizations at the forefront, anything is possible,” believes Mark Gwozdecky, remembering that the Chrétien government was well aware of public support for the eradication of anti -personnel mine before it starts. adventure.

“It’s up to Canadian politicians to have the courage to act without letting their behavior be dictated by any game master,” added Richard Fitoussi, a filmmaker who has dedicated several films to the effects of mines. anti-personnel and who is currently putting the finishing touches on an opus dedicated to the Ottawa agreement and its workers.

The founder of the organization Handicap International, Jean-Baptiste Richardier was also involved in all these diplomatic adventures. His organization, which has since been named Humanity and Inclusion, works with landmine survivors around the world. Along with five other organizations, HI began international advocacy to eradicate them.


Involved in HI, are in Ottawa Philippe Chabasse, a French humanitarian doctor who played a role in the negotiations that led to the Ottawa treaty, Gniep Smoeun, one of the first victims treated by HI, Anne Delorme, general manager of HI Canada, and Jean-Baptiste Richardier, its founder.

Mr. was in Ottawa on Monday. Richardier with some colleagues to celebrate the 25the anniversary of the treaty, but took the opportunity to remind the Canadian government that the war is not over.

In addition to the proliferation of improvised mines in several conflicts, the widespread use of antipersonnel mines in Ukraine and Burma is alarming. If the trend continues, illegal mines will kill five times more people this year than in 2021, a frightening figure. Meanwhile, international resources dedicated to the cause are dwindling.

Ottawa’s leadership faded into the file.

“In four decades, we have seen great strides forward. I can’t imagine the Canadian government not recognizing this achievement, said Mr. Richardier. Now, we and Canada need to raise the flag again. Let him take the sling again.

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