From Afghanistan to Mozambique, antipersonnel landmines have had a bitter legacy. Long after the fighting has subsided, these weapons continue to kill and maim innocent civilians around the world. It is estimated that an average of 15,000 to 20,000 people are killed or injured by landmines each year worldwide.[1] Initially, it was hoped that an agreement banning the production, sale, stockpiling and use of landmines could be reached in the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, a traditional forum for negotiation. However, frustrated by the international community’s inability to conclude a truly comprehensive treaty, a coalition of like-minded states and non-governmental organizations vowed to go it alone and pursue their own fast-track diplomacy. The Ottawa Process, as it was known, infused new life into the movement and produced impressive results; not only was a treaty concluded in record time, but also 123 countries eventually agreed to support a total ban.

Thanks to public diplomacy and middle power leadership, negotiators had achieved a diplomatic tour de force. This paper will draw lessons from the Ottawa Process and assess the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in diplomacy.

In May 1996, diplomats returned to the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva to discuss practical steps to address the problem of landmines. As their starting point, they reviewed the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) which placed limited restrictions on the use of landmines in interstate conflicts. The challenge was now to persuade member states to make the convention applicable to intrastate conflicts, where the problem was most prevalent.[2] Unfortunately, despite an intense lobbying campaign by NGOs, delegates only agreed on a few minor improvements to the Convention that to some observers rendered the entire exercise a waste of time. For example, although Article 4 permitted the use of landmines in close proximity to military objectives, it was still up to states themselves to define what constitutes a legitimate target.[3] In effect, this gave them wide latitude in using such weapons during times of war. Opponents were also infuriated that the revised treaty text actually authorized the use of certain types of smart mines (those which after a certain time self-destruct or can be deactivated remotely).[4] Consequently, activists quickly had lost faith in a process that promised so much and delivered so little.

Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, the Conference on Disarmament had achieved what it was set up to do, that is to reach a broad consensus, regardless of the number of concessions that had to be made. In disarmament diplomacy, negotiations are usually slow and drawn out, and at each step of the way, the results are incremental at best. The fact that it took diplomats more than a decade to conclude the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty underscores this point. Since landmines were still deemed as a legitimate tool of war, especially by the Permanent Members of the Security Council, significant restrictions, let alone an outright ban, were inconceivable. Critics argued that since the Conference on Disarmament operated on a consensus basis, it gave participating states an effective veto in the process.[5] However, without it, very few states would have come to the negotiating table in the first place. They distrust any multilateral approach that allows the will of the majority to prevail over matters which directly affect their own national security. Unfortunately, nations intent on using landmines, particularly the United States, were able to use this effective veto to weaken international resolve, water down the treaty text and reach the lowest common denominator. The bar was set so low that few participants considered the talks a success. According to a Canadian representative, the conference “failed to result in significant progress toward addressing the landmine problem.”[6] Jody Williams, the Coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), was blunter by saying that, “it was a useless treaty, with loopholes so big that you could drive a tank through them.”[7]

As the Geneva conference floundered, some delegates began proposing new strategies to work outside of this traditional forum of diplomacy. During a number of luncheons organized between conference sessions, the NGO community urged pro-ban governments to form a bloc and negotiate a more comprehensive agreement on their own.[8] By keeping potential dissenters out of the process, it was hoped that like-minded nations could hammer out an agreement that went far beyond what was tabled in Geneva. At the final lunch meeting, the Canadian delegation echoed these sentiments, expressed its disappointment and announced a tentative plan for another conference in Ottawa for states that supported a total ban.[9] In October 1996, the Ottawa Conference opened with renewed hopes. Titled “Towards a Global Ban on Anti-Personnel Landmines: An International Strategy Conference,” the summit involved 50 states, hundreds of NGO and dozens of U.N. agencies. According to the conference declaration, participants were to ensure the “earliest possible conclusion for an international agreement to ban antipersonnel mines.”[10] The declaration was further strengthened when Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Foreign Minister, set an ambitious timetable for all interested states to sign a comprehensive treaty ban by December 1997. Some observers doubted that this could be achieved in little more than one year. Over the next thirteen months, the Ottawa summit was followed by a series of meetings and conferences held throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe to build a global consensus and draft a workable treaty text. By December 1997, after months of intense lobbying, arm twisting and backroom diplomacy, this fast-track process lead to the signing in Oslo of the Ottawa Convention by 123 nations.

The Ottawa Process was unique because of the unprecedented participation of NGOs in the negotiations. Rarely have non-state actors been invited to disarmament conferences before, if they have, their participation was usually limited to providing expert advice. [11] However, in this case, government ministers and officials shared plenary sessions with mine victims and NGO representatives; one Canadian official called it a case of “unconventional diplomacy.” [12]

Although such non-state actors have played a role in diplomacy before, their participation was usually limited to giving expert advice. The Ottawa Process particularly annoyed the Permanent Members of the Security Council who viewed this as a form of activist diplomacy: they insisted that all negotiations on this issue belong in the Conference on Disarmament, thereby giving them a full say in the outcome.[13]

The success of the Ottawa Process, and its unconventional nature, leads one to examine the role that NGOs played in this important diplomatic initiative. The evidence suggests that they helped raise global awareness and change attitudes towards landmines. First, until the NGO community began their public campaign, there had been little or no attention paid to the devastating effects of these weapons. Since antipersonnel mines were heavily used in civil conflicts, governments turned a blind eye to a problem that was deemed essentially a domestic matter. However, by the end of the Cold War, as more NGOs established operations in these conflict zones, they witnessed the dreadful affects of these weapons firsthand. Organizations such as Handicap International (France), Human Rights Watch (USA), Medico International (Germany), Save the Children (UK) and Care International (UK) began speaking out against the use of weapons that kill and maim indiscriminately.

In 1991, six prominent NGOs came together to form the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and by 1996, this number had swelled to well-over 1000 in 60 countries.[14] Thanks to advances in communication technology, from fax machines to the Internet, ICBL was able to disseminate information and launch a well-coordinated public awareness campaign. First, they released a series of detailed reports on countries plagued by landmines such as Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mozambique Nicaragua and Somalia.[15]Second, they engaged in a massive letter-to- the-editor campaign to some of the world’s most prominent newspapers. Third, they gathered signatures and delivered petitions to the doorsteps of a number of parliaments around the world. Lastly, and perhaps most effectively, they brought the issue home to television viewers by sponsoring documentaries, giving interviews and inviting prominent individuals to speak out; one of the most notable, Princess Diana, sparked tremendous media interest while visiting landmine victims in Bosnia and Mozambique. This coordinated strategy was paying off and their message was reaching a worldwide audience.

By galvanizing world public opinion, NGOs applied pressure on policymakers to support a total ban. These organizations were intent on politicizing global civil society, a public sphere that exists above the individual but below the state and cuts across national boundaries; it is where groups and individuals interact for a common purpose.[16] During anti-landmine campaign, NGOs tried to politicize the previously unpoliticized[17] by encouraging ordinary citizens to give donations, sign petitions, start letter writing campaigns and even join street protests. It became increasingly difficult for decision makers to ignore the swell of public support for this issue. In 1995, for example, this campaign sparked a public debate in the United Kingdom which culminated in a series of hearings in the British House of Commons.[18] By 1997, landmines had become an election issue in England and France and eventually, under heavy pressure from the public, the newly elected governments in both countries pledged to support the Ottawa Process.[19]

NGO advocacy work is also credited for persuading policymakers in Canada to re-examine their policy towards landmines. Initially, Canada was staunchly opposed to placing any major restrictions on the use of these weapons. As late as 1995, the Canadian Department of Defense insisted that these conventional arms were necessary to protect Canadian Peacekeepers.[20] Even at a Review of the Convention on Injurious Weapons in Vienna that same year, Canada was only willing to go so far as to restrict the use of certain types of landmines.[21] Determined to change this policy, Mines Action Canada, a non-governmental organization and member of the ICBL, wrote to newspaper editors and sent petitions to Members of Parliament;[22] they lobbied hard and eventually policymakers began to take notice. As one official at the Department of External Affairs said, “they (Mines Action Canada) kept poking at our arguments, and the more they poked, the more we had to go back and reexamine our principles. We questioned DND [Department of Defense] and they started to question themselves.”[23] The fact that there was a growing domestic constituency in Canada for this issue probably gave politicians and civil servants a reason to pause. During the 1990s, according to officials at External Affairs, “letters on landmines easily outnumbered all other subjects being sent.”[24]

Although NGOs were largely credited for bringing the landmines issue to the forefront, a treaty ban would not have been possible without middle power leadership. After the failure of the Geneva conference, had Canada not sponsored a new diplomatic initiative, it would have taken months, if not years for activists to get the issue back on the global agenda. By only inviting pro-ban nations to the negotiating table, Canada had created a dynamic process that could neither be vetoed nor undermined by dissenting states. This allowed negotiators to set their aims higher and begin talks from a position well beyond what most states were prepared to discuss at the Geneva Review Conference. This suggests that not only should middle power leadership be given more credit for the success of this initiative, but also Canada’s Foreign Minister at the time, Lloyd Ax worthy, should have shared the Nobel Prize with Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997.

As more nations embraced the Ottawa Process, even its harshest critic, the United States, was under considerable pressure to reconsider its policy position. In the weeks leading up to the signing ceremony in Oslo, several pro-ban governments, including Canada, believed that America’s support was crucial to strengthen the treaty and encourage other major landmine producers, such as China and Russia, to join the process.[25]In the end, despite an intense lobbying campaign, Washington refused to sign the agreement on the grounds that it could not secure first, special exemptions to use mines in Korea and second, the right to withdraw from the treaty after 90 days notice during times of conflict.[26] Although they were under no obligation to sign the treaty, U.S. policymakers still felt compelled to reach a compromise since there was a growing constituency at home and abroad demanding a total ban. This may explain why as early as May 1996, President Bill Clinton relented and agreed to end the use of ‘dumb’ mines (those which cannot self-destruct or be deactivated),” except in Korea.[27] By 1997, as more nations joined the Ottawa Process, a new international norm against landmines emerged and offenders like the United States were put under an uncomfortable spotlight. Ironically, after rejecting the treaty, the United States found itself in the company of handful of less respectable nations including Iraq and North Korea. In an attempt to blunt worldwide criticism, President Clinton directed the Pentagon to find alternatives to all antipersonnel mines, even those in Korea, by 2006.[28] America’s slow and eventual change in policy suggests that new international norms, established by the collective will of small and middle nations, coupled with a global public awareness campaign, can indeed compel major world powers to alter their behavior.

The Ottawa Process underscores, not only the important role of activists in public diplomacy, but also the need for diplomats to forge new partnerships with them. Thanks to a concerted public campaign, the NGO community started a movement to devalue and delegitimize landmines. They played a pivotal role in convincing several countries that this issue deserved attention. However, without middle power leadership from Canada, the landmine issue would have probably fallen off the diplomatic agenda. The Ottawa Process gave the movement the direction and momentum necessary to reach a final negotiated settlement. The process was very much like the departure of a train; it was set in motion by a coalition of pro-ban states, and undecided nations were encouraged to board the train or risk being left behind at the station. The train was moving fast since the engineers were intent on reaching an agreement in less than thirteen months. The public campaign was the fuel in the engine. As the train sped on and more passengers climbed on board, only a handful of states were left behind. Not only were these stragglers singled out for going against global public opinion, but they also faced a barrage of criticism from diplomats, NGOs and the public at large. By the end of this remarkable journey, 123 nations signed the Ottawa treaty and a new global regime was put in place. Mr. Kofi Anan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, summed it up best when he said at the signing ceremony that “one does not have to be a global superpower to affect the future of international peace and security.”


[1] United Nations Mine Action ,

[2] Tim Carstairs, “Diplomacy, International Law and the Civic Campaign Against Landmines,” International Peacekeeping, vol. 14 no.3, Fall 1997, p. 106.

[3] Bob Lawson, “Towards a New Multilateralism: Canada and the Landmine ban,” in Behind the Headlines, Jan. 1997, v.54, no.4 p.21

[4] Ibid., p 21.

[5] Ibid., p.21

[6] Jean Laverdure, “Learning from the Lessons of the Ottawa Process,” Canada’s guide to the Global Ban on Landmines, Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, pg. 1

[7] D’Arcy Jenish, “Landing the Prize: Peace Activist Share in the 1997 Nobel Prize,” Macleans Magazine, October 29/97, p. 33.

[8] Norma Greenway, “Anatomy of a Landmines Agreement,” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 29, 1997, H6.

[9] Jenish, Macleans, p. 33

[10] Celina Tuttle, “Landmines Ban rooted in Civil Society,” in The Peace Magazine, Nov/ Dec. 1997, p. 18

[11] Lawson, Behind the Headlines, p. 22

[12] Ibid., p. 22

[13] Ibid., p. 24

[14] Carey Goldberg, “Peace Prize Goes to Land Mine Opponents,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 1997, A6.

[15] Jody Williams, “Landmines and Measures to Eliminate Them,” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 35, no. 307, August 1995, p. 383.

[16] Paul Wapner, “Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics,” in Activism and World Civil Politics, Macmillan Press: Toronto, 1997 p.312.

[17] Leon Gordenker and Thomas G. Weiss, “Pluralizing Global Governance: Analytical Approaches and Dimensions,” in Global Governance, University Press: Toronto, 1997, p. 17

[18] International Campaign to Ban Landmines, “International Updates”, updates 3-95

[19] Ibid., 3-95

[20] Greenway, Vancouver Sun, H6

[21] Ibid., H1.

[22] ICBL Updates 7-95

[23] Jenish, Macleans, p.32

[24] Greenway, Vancouver Sun, H6

[25] Tuttle, Peace Magazine, p.18

[26] Ibid., p.18.

[27] Raymond Bonner, “How a group of outsiders moved nations to ban landmines,” New York Times, Sept. 20/97, A5

[28] Tuttle, Peace Magazine, p.19.


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