Dag Media Rome Correspondent Anita Abate’s article|| Roll your sleeve, lend your leg

On 4 April we join in declaring “No more landmines”, together with private companies, celebrities, politicians and citizens all around the world, who will be rolling up their pant leg or their sleeve in a symbolic gesture to stand with survivors, taking part in the Lend Your Leg campaign launched by the UN for the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.

by Anita Abate

Landmines, together with cluster bombs and the so-called explosive remnants of war (ERW) continue to have tragic consequences years and decades after a war has ended. Their presence blocks agriculture and mobility. Leaving families without income, either because of injury or because of the impossibility to use the land, preventing development of the areas affected, actively hindering access to schooling and healthcare, they are a permanent threat.

On 13 March Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised the alarm about Syrian forces placing landmines near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey. HRW called on Syria to immediately “cease its use of antipersonnel landmines and recognize that planting this internationally banned weapon will hurt Syrians for years to come”.

The international fight to raise awareness against anti-personnel mines started in the 1990s and was crowned in 1997 by the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty. Since then the Treaty has been signed by three quarters of the countries of the world, the states producing anti-personnel mines have reduced from 54 to 13, millions of square metres of land have been cleared and 44 million mines have been destroyed. It has been the most successful humanitarian agreement on disarmament of the last decade.

This notwithstanding, the scale of the problem remains of staggering proportions. The impact on the local populations affected is devastating.

“I don’t want charity or contributions from anyone. I only want my land cleared of all the mines so I can farm to support my wife and children,” says in a UN Mine Action’s video Chroek Nuch, a 44-year-old farmer from Cambodia injured in 2003 by a mine. In Cambodia, about half of all villages are affected by mines and ERW and one in three victims is a child, according to Mine Action Projects.

Each personal story is unique, but carries a repeated pattern of individuals who have lost body parts and family members, often years or decades after the end of conflicts, whilst carrying out their normal daily activities – working in an orange grove, shepherding, collecting firewood. Lives that have been marred by tragedy, but must carry on.

Even if there are “only” 13 countries left producing landmines, they include the leading, most involved and most numerous armies of the world (United States, Russia, China, India…). In November 2009, US President Barack Obama decided to continue refusing to join the international treaty banning landmines, a decision that was defined as lacking “vision, compassion and common sense” by Stephen Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch.

“Any use of antipersonnel landmines is unconscionable,” said Steve Goose recently. “There is absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons by any country, anywhere, for any purpose.” The over 5000 casualties recorded each year because of landmines and ERW are a continuous haemorrhaging of people’s livelihood and development, caused by the ongoing production, use and exporting of these weapons.

Similarly, exporting production to non-signatory countries is just as cynical. Exemplary, though infamously so, is the Italian company Valsella Meccanotecnica, which opened a subsidiary in Singapore in 1982 to fulfil an order of almost 6 million landmines to Iraq and then closed down production in Italy. To this day, Singapore hasn’t signed the Mine Ban Treaty and is a main producer and exporter of landmines whilst, according to the 2011 Small Arms Survey, Italy is the second leading exporter of small arms and light weapons after the United States (with Germany in third position and Turkey in eighth position).

“There is a growing realisation that armed violence comes in various different forms,” says Sebastian Taylor, Chief Executive of Action on Armed Violence. “And there is a growing understanding that if countries want to see full development happen, they have to start addressing the broad problem of armed violence with a holistic approach. This includes reduction of all types of conventional weapons and, at the same time, working with the communities affected including victims in the development plans.”

The Geneva Declaration on armed violence and development denounces that “more than 740,000 people die each year as a result of armed violence”. The question facing the international community is open. It is a question of vision and compassion. As in the 1990s, awareness is being raised today to create the focus and the ripples to bring about solutions on the ground.

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