From Rhetoric to Reality: Canada, the United States, and the Ottawa Process to Ban Landmines

By Kitchen, Veronica | International Journal, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

From Rhetoric to Reality: Canada, the United States, and the Ottawa Process to Ban Landmines


Kitchen, Veronica, International Journal


This article was awarded the Marvin Gelber prize for 2001. Established in recognition of the abiding interest of Marvin Gelber in international affairs and of his many years of service to the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, the prize is awarded annually to a superior essay by a junior Canadian scholar on a subject in the area of international affairs and foreign policy.

Graduate Student, Department of Political Science, Brown University. The article was written when the author was a student at the University of Toronto.

ON 3 DECEMBER 1997, 122 STATES came together in Ottawa to sign the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines and on their Destruction. The United States, one of the countries at the forefront of the fight to deal with the problem of landmines, was not one of them. Canada, which had been virtually silent on landmines up until at least 1995, in the end spearheaded the fast-track diplomatic process that ended in the Ottawa convention. How did this come about?

A comparison of personalities, non-governmental organization (NGO) campaigns, the foreign services, the relative importance of the military, and negotiating strategy leads to several interesting conclusions. First, it seems clear that the debate in Canada centred around landmines as a humanitarian issue and their effect on civilians. In the United States, the debate remained an arms control issue; ban proponents never successfully redefined it in humanitarian terms. In Canada, the redefinition made it possible to take the ban outside of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD), the consensus-driven body that traditionally had responsibility for landmines and other booby traps. For Canada, too, the Ottawa Process (as the initiative came to be known) was a way in which a middle power could distinguish itself on the world stage with a 'moral' foreign policy. The United States, by contrast, preferred to keep the issue in a forum it could control. It also had to deal with the tension between its military duties as a superpower and a traditional desire to pursue a moral foreign policy. These factors all led to the decision by Canada to seize the initiative and by the United States to concentrate its efforts on demining rather than on signing the ban.

Because the Ottawa Process is a relatively recent event, little scholarly research has been done on the subject, especially in the United States. Much of the literature in Canada was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), in whose best interest it is to portray Canada in a positive light; moreover, many of the authors participated in the policy process as government officials, civil servants, or activists. Possible biases must, therefore, be taken into account in the work of these authors. Furthermore, the government that presided over the Ottawa Process is still in power, and many of the people involved in the process are still in the civil service. Lloyd Axworthy, who as the minister of foreign affairs played a pivotal role in the process, left office only recently. The participants cannot, in many cases, be completely candid in their interpretations of the policy process because they are still officials of the Canadian government. On the other hand, because the process is so recent, it is possible to interview participants for memories and interpretations not yet blurred by too many intervening years.(1)

The origins of the campaign to eliminate landmines can be traced back to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Originally, the issue was one of high politics, concerned only with state security, and precluded any civil society involvement. At the end of the cold war, the security discourse broadened, providing room for a counter discourse that portrayed landmines as a humanitarian issue. Once considered a useful defence for states, landmines began to be portrayed as a danger to civilians long after conflicts were over and as a hindrance to development, in part because their presence prevented aid agencies from moving into the regions where they were most needed. …

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