Vienna, Geneva, Amman -- Vienna might be miles away from the nearest mine field but today it hosts hundreds of government delegates, royalty, a Nobel Peace Laureate, and landmine experts and survivors to discuss how to best address anti-personnel mines. Last year, these weapons caused more than 8,500 casualties around the world.
The international diplomatic meeting with more than 400 delegates taking place in the Austrian capital is the annual gathering of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention which prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of these weapons, ensure their destruction and calls for assistance of the victims of these arms. The treaty counts with 163 States Parties (Sri Lanka joined the Convention only a few days before the meeting).
Austria's chairing of the conference on its 20th anniversary illustrates its commitment to a mine-free world.
Twenty years ago, Austria was one of a core group of States that together with civil society brought about the Convention, hosting a governmental discussion in Vienna, and drafting the text of what would become international binding law.
The meeting is being chaired by the Austrian Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, Head of the Department for Disarmament who has been called the "father of the Convention text" for his key involvement in treaty negotiations 20 years ago.
"Anti-personnel mines are insidious weapons that kill civilians even decades after conflicts end. Anti-personnel mines prevent the use of land for agriculture, block children from taking the path to the nearest school, and cause misery and poverty. It was the horrific and indiscriminate impact of anti-personnel mines that led to the conviction that there is only one solution: banning them," said the Chair during the opening of the conference.
"The convention has come home today to the place where its drafting started and I am delighted to welcome you all here. We can proudly celebrate the twenty years anniversary; the convention has saved tens of thousands of lives and delivered great results in all its areas," added the Ambassador.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, which was involved in creating the treaty was represented in the opening ceremony by its President, Peter Maurer.
"The treaty brought unprecedented attention to the plight of the people and communities affected by landmines and other unexploded ordnance. And it was extraordinary in its approach: It was the first time that a weapon in widespread use had been prohibited due to its appalling human, economic and social costs; it was also the first treaty of international humanitarian law to prohibit not only the use of a weapon but also its production, stockpiling and transfer... and to require its elimination, merging humanitarian and disarmament imperatives," said Maurer.
The Convention in his view however, is at a crossroads.
"In recent years mine casualties have risen sharply in some countries. Anti-personnel mines, in particular improvised mines, are taking a heavy toll on civilians in places including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Shockingly children accounted for 42% of all civilian casualties," said Maurer referring to date published a few days ago by the Landmine Monitor, a publication created by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
The ICBL is the coalition of more than a thousand non-governmental organizations that pushed for the creation of the treaty. The ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams, were co-Laureates of the 1997 of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in bringing about the Convention.
Jody Williams called for sustained commitment and cooperation to address the remaining challenges. More than 30 countries are still struggling against this scourge.
HRH Prince Mired of Jordan who has been the Special Envoy of the Convention spoke of what once was considered a "mission impossible".
"It was a daunting task," he said referring to the challenge that countries as Jordan faced. "In April 2012, we announced we had finished clearing our minefields thanks to our commitment and that of donors. Demining is doable but requires a great deal of effort, a serious approach, political will, financial resources and in most cases, national ownership," added Prince Mired.
"Regarding the assistance to victims and survivors, I think we need to take an honest look at the plight of survivors in our respective countries and take concrete steps to intensify our victim assistance efforts for all persons with disabilities including landmine survivors."
Prince Mired also talked about the engagement of States that are not party inviting all the Parties to engage with those outside the treaty at the highest level possible.
The meeting will continue at the UN in Vienna until 21 December. On Tuesday 19 December, HRH Princess Astrid of Belgium will inaugurate a panel on victim assistance including with the participation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and Catalina Devandas, the UN Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.
During the week some of the world's most mine contaminated countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia and Serbia, will present updates of their work. It is expected that up to six countries, Angola, Ecuador, Iraq, Thailand, Ukraine and Zimbabwe will request additional time to meet their mine clearance obligations. Greece, Oman and Ukraine which have not yet completed their stockpile destruction obligation will present an update on their efforts to destroy these weapons.
Algeria will formally declare that after more than three decades it is now mine-free, and Belarus will announce that it has met its stockpile destruction obligation after destroying more than one million Soviet-era landmines.
On 21 December, mine-affected Afghanistan is expected to be elected as the next Chair of the Convention.
More than 51 million landmines have been destroyed by the Convention's States Parties and millions of square metres of land once contaminated have been returned for its normal use.
Press Note: the Convention was adopted in Oslo and signed in Ottawa in 1997, and entered into force in 1999. 80% of the world's states are now part of the treaty. 30 States have declared completing mine clearance; 29 states have declared responsibility for large numbers of survivors of these weapons.