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Landmines still kill in Europe: Time for an absolute ban

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 26/07/2010
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There have been more than 3 000 casualties caused by landmines in Europe in the last ten years. Anti-personnel landmines continue to kill or maim indiscriminately long after wars have finished. They are therefore banned under international law. However, this prohibition has not been effectively implemented and some Council of Europe member states have not even ratified the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Today the victims of these remnants of military conflicts are innocent civilians, often children. In certain areas migrants in search of asylum have stepped on mines. They do not see the warning signs when they are trying to cross these contaminated areas during the night.

In September 2008 four Georgian migrants lost their lives. They were trying to enter northern Greece when they walked into the mined area in Evros, on the border with Turkey.

In Cyprus, in December 2008 an Iraqi family with one child suffered injuries from an anti-personnel mine while trying to cross the buffer zone to seek asylum.

Other European states faced with armed conflicts, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Russia and Turkey, have significant mine casualties every year. From 1999 to 2008 in Russia alone there were a reported 2 795 casualties caused by mines.

Cluster munitions banned from 1 August

Cluster munitions are another type of vicious weapon whose remnants kill or maim civilians. On 1 August 2010 a new treaty, adopted in 2008, is expected to enter into force. Such treaties can have wide ranging effects.

The groundbreaking Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, is a good example of this. Following a forceful civil society movement led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), this treaty expressly proscribes anti-personnel mines, that is, mines designed to explode through the presence, proximity or contact of a person.

States are now bound to destroy all their stockpiled anti-personnel mines and to clean all contaminated areas under their control – a difficult and costly process. They are also obliged to provide social and economic assistance for the care and rehabilitation of mine victims. Mine awareness programmes are another vital part of the treaty.

In spite of its paramount importance for Europe, six Council of Europe member states have still not ratified the Mine Ban Treaty: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Finland, Poland and Russia.

In 2009 the Strasbourg Court dealt with the case of Alkin concerning an 11-year old Turkish girl whose leg was amputated from the knee after she stepped on a landmine in the area of her village. The Court considered that the laying of landmines amounts “to intentional use of lethal force”, and underlined that breaches of the right to life cannot be remedied only through an award of compensation. It should be accompanied by criminal procedures to identify and punish those responsible.

International cooperation and assistance, for example in the field of mine clearance, is another important provision. In 2007 six European states - Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK - were among the top ten contributors to international funding, with the European Commission topping the list.

Landmines obstruct development

The presence of landmines and cluster munitions affects the entire fabric of society. They obstruct countries’ development after a conflict. They inhibit the return of displaced persons and hinder the reconstruction of affected areas. I have highlighted these serious issues in two recent reports dealing, among other things, with the human rights of displaced persons in Turkey and in Croatia.

It is regrettable that such inhumane weapons are still used. It is high time that all European states ratify the Mine Ban Treaty and respect its provisions. The same goes for a prompt ratification of the new treaty banning cluster munitions.

Thomas Hammarberg