David with Goliath

Article excerpt

International Cooperation and the Campaign to Ban Landmines

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) was formally launched by six nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in October 1992. It galvanized world opinion against anti-personnel landmines to such a degree that within five years a clear and simple ban treaty had been negotiated. Signed by 122 nations in December 1997, the treaty became binding international law more quickly than any other such agreement in history. The treaty has, for the first time, comprehensively prohibited a widely used conventional weapon.

In the late 1980s, a number of NGOs began to recognize that the tens of millions of landmines contaminating dozens of countries around the world posed a humanitarian crisis. Human-rights organizations, children's advocacy groups, development and refugee organizations, and medical and humanitarian relief groups were being forced to make significant adjustments in their field programs to address the impact of landmines on the people they were trying to help. It became very clear that the only way to eliminate the problem was to eliminate the weapon. The NGO community did not wait for others to take action; they recognized a critical problem and initiated an effort to address it. These organizations had expertise on a wide range of issues related to landmines, and they worked diligently to gather field-based information that supported their demands for a global ban on the weapon.

As the ICBL effort was getting off the ground, the changing global situation helped set favorable conditions for talks on the use of conventional weapons. The end of the Cold War and shifting centers of power made it possible to approach issues of conflict in ways other than simply trying to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Organizations and individuals began to look at how conflicts had actually played out during the Cold War and at what weapons and methods of warfare had produced the most significant impact on the lives of civilians. In addition, possible responses by governments to issues of global concern were no longer as constrained as during the Cold War, when the two major powers dominated diplomacy.

The process that brought about the Mine Ban Treaty has added a new dimension to diplomacy, and its success has generated hope for its wider applicability. When the Nobel Committee announced that the ICBL had been awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace, the Committee recognized not only the achievement of the ban, but also the promise of the model established by the ICBL. The Committee noted that the ICBL had been able to "express and mediate a broad range of popular commitment in an unprecedented way. With the governments of several small and medium-sized countries taking the issue up...this work has grown into a convincing example of an effective policy for peace." The Committee concluded that, "as a model for similar processes in the future, it could prove of decisive importance to the international effort for disarmament and peace." What made the ICBL so successful that it could serve as a possible model for others?

Critical to the strength of the ICBL has been its loose structure, a phenomenon that is often misunderstood. The ICBL is a true coalition made up of independent NGOs. There has never been a secretariat or central office. The NGOs that comprise the ICBL have come together with the common goal of banning landmines, but there has never been an overarching, bureaucratic structure to dictate how members should contribute to the ICBL. The ICBL deliberately did not establish a central office; each NGO had to find a way to participate in making the campaign work. This structure helped to ensure that the ICBL "belonged" to all of its members.

Members of the ICBL meet regularly to develop comprehensive strategies and plan joint actions; beyond that each NGO and national campaign has carried out its work in a manner that best fits its individual mandate, political culture, and circumstances. The overall strategy has always been to press for national, regional, and international measures to ban landmines. In the post-treaty period, the agenda has shifted to pursuit of the treaty's universalization, implementation, and compliance.

As a loose coalition, clear and consistent communication has been critical to the ICBL's success. Individual members of the ICBL gained strength by being able to speak with authority about all the efforts being made to address the issue. Sharing stories of their successes and failures empowered all organizations and lessened the possibility of isolating any one group. Because communication has been so strong and consistent, the ICBL has often learned of developments relating to the ban movement before governments became aware of them. This has made the ICBL a focal point of information for governments and NGOs alike. Its role as an information center also helped build confidence between governments and the ICBL.

However, a myth concerning the ICBL's success has developed. The idea that the ICBL is so unique because of its reliance on e-mail is not fully justified. Certainly the ease and speed of communication made possible by new technologies have greatly improved the ability of civil societies to engage in constructive dialogue and formulate global political strategies. But e-mail alone has not "moved the movement."

In the early years of the ICBL, unity among NGOs of diverse interests was achieved by extensive use of the fax machine, as well as regular mailings of documents and informational updates to campaign members. The ICBL first relied upon the fax and telephone for its daily communications. It was not until 1996 that ICBL members completed the shift to electronic communication. E-mail has permitted the ICBL to honor its priority of frequent and timely internal communication to a greater degree than ever before.

As important as fax, phone, and email communication were in linking together the huge coalition, even more crucial to the effort have been the personal relationships that developed, within the ICBL and between campaigners and various government and military representatives. E-mail has been used relatively infrequently for communications outside of the campaign, and the high level of cooperation between governments and NGOs during the Ottawa Process of negotiations was more the result of face-to-face meetings than anything else.

It was the combination of all these elements that produced the partnership between the ICBL and governments, and that resulted in the actual Mine Ban Treaty. To this day this partnership continues its efforts to universalize the treaty and secure its full implementation. The field-based experience of the NGOs provided the basis for the ICBL's expertise and credibility as the engine of the mine ban movement. Its clear, consistent message and concrete plans for action (which met with continued successes) helped build the political will that allowed governments and NGOs to take the critical steps toward a ban.

Confidence between the ICBL and governments grew as momentum for a ban became stronger. When the ICBL called upon individual governments to come together in a self-identifying proban bloc at the beginning of 1996, they responded. Historically, NGOs and governments have too often seen each other as adversaries, not colleagues; these first meetings were very tentative, and some members of the NGO community worried that governments were going to "hijack" the process in order to forestall a ban. But by the third meeting, the Canadian government offered to host a governmental meeting in October 1996, when pro-ban governments would meet to discuss an agreement. These governments worked on an almost daily basis with the ICBL to make it a success.

While many hope that diplomacy marked by real partnership between civil society and governments will be a hallmark of the post-Cold War period, those who are less enamored with the success of the ICBL regard the work as an example of future "netwars" in which groups not accountable to anyone, such as NGOs, can come together through the internet and seriously threaten national security (especially US national security--the United States did not embrace the Ottawa Process or the Mine Ban Treaty). The implication is that concepts of national security are too esoteric for lowly citizens to grasp or make reasonable, valuable contributions to its formulation.

It is not difficult to understand why those who stand to benefit from politics-as-usual and old-fashioned diplomacy would feel uncomfortable with increased citizen involvement in defining national security and the search for new ways to resolve global problems. From this perspective, the ICBL and its partnerships with governments have created a process that threatens traditional methods of diplomacy and clearly demonstrates that civil society and governments do not have to see each other as adversaries. The ICBL example has shown that in a partnership between civil society and governments, each brings particular assets to the process, which is made stronger by the participation of both. It demonstrates that small and medium-sized powers can work together with civil society and address humanitarian concerns with breathtaking speed. It shows that such a partnership can be a new kind of superpower in the post-Cold War world. Thus, the continued success of the ICBL has broader implications than the removal of an indiscriminate weapon. When the campaign succeeds, the model succeeds. And when the model succeeds, it demonstrates that a greater level of cooperation and participation from the international community can dramatically improve the world.


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