Why I do this work

Last week was the annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I knew this meeting was going to be different because it was the first held in Geneva, the first to be only three days long and the first meeting after Textron announced it was ending production of cluster munitions, but I had no idea I would leave with such strong reminders of why I do this work. I would like to share with you three stories from last week.

First, I got to see the long-term impact of our youth programming. Senegalese landmine survivor Mamady Gassama and I first met in 2007 when we were both youth campaigners participating in MAC's Youth Leadership, Education and Action Program (Youth LEAP). Over the years, we've both grown into our roles and last week, Mamady delivered an eloquent and compelling call for support to victims of cluster munitions on behalf of the Cluster Munition Coalition. Seeing my friend move from youth campaigner to campaign leader showed me how important it is to support youth campaigners. 

Second, while we were meeting in Geneva, US President Obama was visiting Laos for the first time. After years of advocacy by our colleagues at Legacies of War, President Obama acknowledged the humanitarian harm caused by the use of cluster munitions there during the Vietnam war, increased funding to clear land and visited COPE Laos. Another big win for campaigners which made news around the world. For us, we had the extra excitement of seeing another graduate of MAC's Youth LEAP take centre stage. Soksai Sengvongkham gave President Obama a tour of the COPE Centre. You can see Soksai with the President in all the media photos of that visit. We focus on youth programming because when young people get a little boost, they can achieve great things.

Third, I had the opportunity to sit down with Raed Al-Saleh, the founder of the Syrian Civil Defense (aka The White Helmets) after he addressed diplomats, to talk about how they help casualties of cluster munition strikes in Syria. As we talked about what the White Helmets and other civilians face on a daily basis in Syria, diplomats were in another room debating whether or not they should include language condemning all cluster munition use in a declaration. Later that afternoon two While Helmet volunteers were killed by a cluster munition strike in Syria. After that horrific news, campaigners redoubled their efforts to ensure that the declaration remained strong and after much debate, states adopted a declaration that said “We remain gravely concerned and strongly condemn the continued use of cluster munitions, most notably in Syria and Yemen in the past year.”

To be honest, the contrast between seeing our Youth LEAP graduates shine and hearing from Raed about the reality in Syria was hard to process. Despite all the success we’ve had in the past three weeks and how important I know our work is, I was feeling a little useless in the face of so much suffering and so little action by states until I remembered the small piece of blue paper I keep in my desk. That piece of paper says:

"The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins"

I don't have the skills to help Raed and his volunteers to dig survivors out of rubble and clear cluster submunitions or the authority to end the conflict there or in Yemen where cluster munitions are also being used, but I can speak out against the use of cluster munitions and all of us at MAC will continue to do so. It is crucial for us as civil society to press governments to take action and stop the use of cluster munitions even if it feels like we’re up against a brick wall.

As advocates, our job is to keep fighting even when things get hard because the someday when somebody wins is just around the corner. Maybe that somebody is me or maybe it will be one of the youth we’ve trained. Last week reminded me that I do this work because someday, somebody who believes as I do will win.




Double the policy review fun!

This summer, the Government of Canada carried out two policy reviews related to our work. Global Affairs Canada held an International Assistance Review and the Department of National Defence undertook a Defence Policy Review. 

You can read more about the International Assistance Review and the Defence Policy Review online. MAC participated in a number of consultations during the International Assistance Review as well as submitted papers containing our recommendations to both the International Assistance Review and the Defence Policy Review. From public consultations with MPs in Ottawa and Victoria to intense workshops and high level consultations, we enjoyed participating in the review processes and now we hope that the government takes the recommendations from civil society seriously as they shape Canada's role internationally.

In our International Assistance Review submission, we highlighted Canada's past as a leader on mine action and helping civilians rebuild after conflict. This past leadership was crucial to creation of the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines and the early successes that treaty had. We reminded the government that the job isn't finished yet though. Landmines, cluster munitions and explosive remnants of war are lethal barriers to development and Canada cannot achieve its international assistance goals without addressing these problems. Read our full submission here.

In our Defence Policy Review submission, we focused on the need for meaningful human control over the use of force. We also spoke about the need to have thorough and transparent reviews of new weapons systems before procurement. Read our full submission here.

After we finished both of those submissions (they were due on the same day, by the way), we decided we weren't done yet and drafted a brief submission to the 2017 Pre-Budget consultations. In this document, we advocated for more funding to the International Youth Internship Program. Here's our full submission

We will update you as soon as we hear about the results of the two policy reviews but in the meantime, please consider making a small donation to help us keep the pressure up. With your support we will continue to call for more Canadian leadership on humanitarian disarmament.



Minister Dion Visits COPE

Our colleague and Youth LEAP grad Soksai Sengvongkham has excellent things to say about Minister Stéphane Dion's visit to COPE Laos.

Great to see someone trained by our previous Global Affairs Canada funded youth program have the opportunity to show the Minister of Foreign Affairs what Canadian funding can do!


Women, Peace and Security

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development is currently undertaking a study on Women, Peace and Security to help in drafting a new Canadian Action Plan. According to the government, the purpose of this study is to examine "Canada’s role in supporting the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security (132518201888188919602106, 2122 and 2242). Together, these resolutions necessitate the protection of women’s rights and women’s meaningful involvement in all efforts to prevent, resolve and recover from armed conflict."

Mines Action Canada strongly supports this work and submitted written testimony to the Committee based on our experience in humanitarian disarmament.  You can read our submission here


Working Paper on Victim Assistance and Nuclear Weapons

This year the United Nations is holding an Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament. Mines Action Canada capitalized on our experience with the Ottawa Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions to submit a working paper to the OEWG on the need to include victim assistance in a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The working paper is available online here.


They are doctors, nurses and medics not soldiers or targets

Last week saw global outrage over the bombing of two hospitals in Aleppo, Syria. Coming soon after the bombing of a civil defense centre, the destruction of al-Quds hospital and Al Marjeh Primary Health Care Centre within days of each other made headlines around the world. Sadly, these horrific and illegal bombings were not isolated incidents.

Over the last few years, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan and too many other countries, have seen attacks on health care facilities. Although health care facilities and medical personnel are protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), making such attacks war crimes, 2015 witnessed an alarming increase in these illegal tactics. To be clear, these are not mistakes or accidental collateral damage but targeted attacks on those providing life-saving medical care in the midst of conflict. As a result, there has also been a rise in the number of unmarked ambulances and covert field hospitals established in conflict zones.  These field hospitals have even become the main source of health care in opposition controlled Syria.

With hospitals, ambulances and medical facilities under attack or destroyed, thousands of civilians are being denied a fundamental human right guaranteed by the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to health.  This unacceptable war tactic is exacerbating already dire humanitarian crises around the world. The ongoing situation not only undermines the credibility of the international community, but also highlights one of the most damaging long term impacts of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  

The unseen impacts of attacks on health care facilities

Attacks against medical facilities impede access to health care and have disastrous impacts on long term health. Beyond the obvious death and injury caused by attacks on health care systems and the lack of emergency treatment for those injured in the conflict, targeting health care has wide-spread humanitarian impacts. The already overwhelmed health care systems of states in conflict are often unable to cope with the influx of patients caused by the destruction of medical facilities.  “Targeting the health system has compounded the crisis, caused many medical personnel to flee, and prevented countless civilians from getting treated’’ said Widney Brown, Physicians for Human Rights’s director of programs.  In addition to war-injured persons, thousands of people are dying of preventable causes because they unable to access proper health care across conflict zones.

Targeting medical facilities has also impeded vaccination campaigns. The outbreak of polio in Syria and Iraq which started in October 2013 was called “the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication.” Before this outbreak, polio was last reported in Syria in 1999 and in Iraq in 2000.  Unusually large outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever were reported in Yemen by the WHO in 2015. Additionally, fighting forced the postponement of a polio and measles vaccination campaign endangering the lives of millions of children in Yemen. 

Case studies


Attacks on medical facilities and health care providers have been a feature of the conflict in Syria. A report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) identified that between March 2011 and December 2015, 346 attacks were conducted on 246 Syrian medical facilities, killing 705 medical personnel. Syrian government and Russian forces were found responsible for 315 attacks according to the NGO.  Hospitals were specifically targeted on at least 211 occasions. 

The scale of attacks on medical care in Syria is overwhelming, we will just look at attacks on hospitals in Aleppo, both the city and governorate. The city of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, saw its health care facilities attacked 45 times in the three years prior to October 2015. As a consequence of these attacks, less than a third of its hospitals were functioning in late 2015, and the ratio of doctors to residents is eight times less than before the conflict started, denying access to much needed medical services. “The Syrian government is using attacks on Aleppo’s health care system as a weapon of war” said Dr. Michele Heisler, of PHR.

A late January 2016 Russian air attack destroyed the last major hospital, the Andan Charitable Hospital, in northern Aleppo. The hospital was providing advanced medical services, including surgery, to residents of the Aleppo countryside. Residents are now forced to travel 50 km to clinics along the Turkish border to receive health care. The hospital was directly targeted by Russian airstrikes. A doctor and a 10 year old patient were killed, and 24 others were injured as a result of the attack.

The result of these attacks is most evident in a media story from 1 May 2016:

Amr al-Halaby, 32, said his teenage daughter, whose leg was severed by a government barrel bomb, had only been able to receive limited treatment from a local vet in the family’s home. “Her painkillers have run out and there is nowhere for us to take her,” said Mr Halaby. “She has reached hell and we can only watch her sink deeper.”


The already fragile health care system in Yemen is coming under severe strain since the conflict erupted in March 2015. The WHO has estimated that almost a quarter of Yemen’s medical facilities are no longer operational due to the violence. “The health system is on the brink of collapse” declared Dr Ahmed Shadoul, WHO Representative for Yemen.  The situation is so dire that the president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, said that “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years", warning the international community of the growing humanitarian catastrophe as medical facilities continue to be targeted. Two ICRC staff were killed by gunmen in September 2015 and the organization’s office was raided by gunmen in a separate incident.

A UNICEF report stated that at least 63 health facilities have been attacked since the start of fighting in March 2015 and almost 600 facilities have ceased operations due to damage or lack of supplies, electricity and staff. The report goes on to estimate that “nearly 10,000 children under the age of five may have died in the past year from preventable diseases as a result of the decline in key health services such as immunization against vaccine preventable diseases and the treatment of diarrhoea and pneumonia.”


An attack on a medical facility in Afghanistan in October 2015, brought the issue of attacks on health care to the general public’s attention. The MSF hospital in Kunduz province, the only trauma centre in northern Afghanistan, was repeatedly attacked and eventually destroyed by U.S airstrikes, killing 42, including 14 staff and 24 patients and 4 caretakers.  Now, residents in the Kunduz province have to either go to expensive private clinics, or attempt the long and dangerous journey to Kabul or Pakistan to receive treatment. On 29 April 2016, the United States Department of Defence released their long, jargon filled and partially redacted report on the incident and said the incident was not a war crime.

The hospital in Kunduz has not yet reopened.



In December 2011, during the 31st International Conference of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the international community adopted a resolution mandating the ICRC to initiate consultations with subject matter experts to formulate practical recommendations for improving safe access to health care services.  The “Health Care in Danger” project was created to achieve this objective.  The ICRC published its first recommendations in 2013. 

In conjunction with those 2013 recommendations, the United Nation (UN) adopted four resolutions for the protection of health care services during armed conflict in December 2014.  This reinforced the principles in four Geneva Conventions and two additional Protocols already providing for the protection of health care facilities. These resolutions asserted to warring parties that attacks against medical facilities constitute a war crime. 

However, governments and rebel groups appear to be ignoring the warnings of the international community, as more and more hospitals and medical clinics become the targets of attacks.

Civil society has not been silent in the face of these unacceptable and illegal attacks. MSF launched a social media campaign to raise 

awareness on the fact that its hospitals have been bombed every week in 2015 and 2016 in Syria and have been targeted countless times worldwide. The #NotATarget campaign demands that medical facilities stop being treated as military targets in conflict zones.  The longer these attacks are tolerated by the international community, the more likely they will become a new norm in armed conflicts. The usually reserved ICRC is speaking out more on this issue, most recently in collaboration with MSF, and the ICRC President Peter Maurer has been uncharacteristically blunt.

In our humanitarian disarmament work, we advocate strongly for effective assistance to victims of landmines, cluster munitions, explosive remnants of war and explosive weapons used in populated areas. The targeting of health care facilities and medical personnel prevents victims from getting the emergency and long term care they need.  

The international community has a chance this month to reverse course and reaffirm international prohibitions on attacking medical facilities.  Tomorrow, 3 May 2016, the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution designed to stop future attacks against hospitals, patients and civilians in war zones. Update: We're pleased to see that Canada will be co-sponsoring this resolution. Later this month, states will gather in Turkey for the World Humanitarian Summit where they will make core commitments in regards to humanitarian issues. One of the High-Level Leaders’ Roundtables is on “Upholding the norms that safeguard humanity” where states will have the opportunity to speak out on the targeting of civilian objects like medical facilities. In both these discussions, states have the responsibility to speak out against the targeting of medical facilities and personnel and to take action to protect those who risk everything to save lives in conflict. 

Jean-Philippe Lambert Ste Marie is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa and a Mines Action Canada research assistant and Erin Hunt is the Program Coordinator at Mines Action Canada.



Disarmament isn't always dark: My experience at Mines Action Canada

I have been working with Mines Action Canada since January and today is already my last day as an intern here. My study abroad year has come to an end and next week I leave Canada and from September I will be finishing my undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Leeds.

As an intern at Mines Action Canada I learned a lot about a field that previously I was not very familiar with. While the focus area of Mines Action Canada may not seem very uplifting with its focus on explosive weapons and landmines, I was happy to discover that while there is still a lot of work to be done, it is important to remember that so much progress has already been made.

Unfortunately it is human nature to focus more so on the negative than the positive, but having worked here I have realised that there is much to be celebrated in regard to disarmament and the use of explosive weaponry. For example, more and more countries are joining the landmine treaty, countries are co-operating in order to stop the future use of autonomous weapons or “killer robots” and an ever increasing number of countries are finally being deemed as “mine-free” after decades of conflict left them as extremely dangerous places to live.

Working here also taught me how rewarding it is to be involved in humanitarian work, even in the small way that I became involved. I think many people become disillusioned when they read about such huge issues as landmine contamination or the use of improvised explosive devices; however working with Mines Action Canada has shown me that there is a multitude of ways that anyone can become involved and try to make a difference.

I have not made firm plans as to what I would like to do post-graduation, but working at Mines Action Canada has definitely opened my eyes to the world of humanitarian work and so this field is definitely something that I would consider.

Claudia Pearson is an undergraduate student from the University of Leeds studying abroad at the University of Ottawa. 


International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action

On December 8th 2005, the United Nations General Assembly declared April 4th the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness on mine action and remind the population of the danger that landmines pose all over the world. It is also an opportunity to highlight all the exceptional work that mine action personnel and advocacy groups do around the world; and to point out that dealing with explosive hazards are only one aspect of mine action work. It is also a moment for the United Nation to reaffirm its partnership with states, non-states actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) to eradicate all anti-personnel landmines across the globe. This year the ICBL is using the slogan: “Finish the Job 2025” and the United Nations official theme of International Mine Action Day is “Mine action is humanitarian action”. Let’s look at both of those themes.

Finish the Job 2025
In 2014, capitalizing on the momentum provided by the Third Review Conference of the Ottawa Treaty in Maputo, the ICBL challenged the international community to fulfill the promises of the Treaty and to realize a mine free world by 2025. The states present at the Review Conference adopted the Maputo Declaration which set the same goal.

The Ottawa Treaty or as it is often called, the Mine Ban Treaty, was signed in Ottawa in 1997 and entered into law in 1999. It is one of the world's most endorsed treaties. Over 80% of world's countries have committed to it. This universalization of the treaty helps reinforce the stigma now associated with the use of landmines; and this tactic is obviously working. To see the success in action we looked at Landmine Monitor 2005 which identified 6,521 new landmine/UXO casualties in calendar year 2004. The Landmine Monitor 2015 identified 3,678 new casualties in calendar year 2014, the second lowest number of casualties since 1999. The drop in casualties alone between 2005 and 2015 is worth celebrating but there are more successes that show it is possible to Finish the Job by 2025.

In the year the Ottawa Treaty became binding international law, there were 45 states parties. Fifteen years later, we have 162 states parties and Sri Lanka has announced they will soon be #163.

Finish the Job 2025 calls for complete worldwide mine clearance by 2025. An ambitious objective, even by NGO standards, but the ICBL strongly believe that with political determination and commitment from the mine ban community, the States Parties of the Mine Ban Treaty are more than capable of fulfilling their obligations within the next decade. As you noted above, the Ottawa Treaty has made excellent progress over the past ten years and we hope to see similar progress over the next ten. The International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action provides an excellent opportunity for the international community to stress to decisions makers the important of fulfilling that objective. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared: "Eliminating the threat of mines and explosive remnants of war is a crucially important endeavour that advances peace, enables development, supports nations in transition and saves lives.”

Mine action is humanitarian action
Mine action is not only about the danger of dealing with explosives, more importantly it is about providing hope and a chance at a better life to thousands of civilians. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon affirmed:
“...mine action programmes make an invaluable contribution to post-conflict recovery, humanitarian relief efforts, peace operations and development initiatives. They prevent landmines and other explosive ordnance from causing further indiscriminate harm long after conflicts have ended, and help to transform danger zones into productive land. Mine action sets communities on course toward lasting stability.”

Contamination by landmines and explosive remnants of war prevent civilians from accessing basic necessities such as drinking water. Contaminated lands and farms cripple development of agriculture exacerbating poverty. Thanks to landmine clearance and the hard work of mine action personnel, now communities in the Battambang province in Cambodia can grow produce on their farms and sell them to local markets; while the city of Bentiu in South Sudan now have access to safe drinking water since the local borehole has been cleared of explosive remnants of war.

Mine action also plays a crucial role in relief efforts. For example, in 2014, the World Food Program initiated a project to build a road in South Sudan so that humanitarian assistance could be delivered by road to villages affected by the ongoing conflict. It is estimated that approximately 2.5 millions of South Sudanese were in need of food assistance at that time. However, during the first few days of the project, a bulldozer hit a anti-tank mine. The project had to be suspended while the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) cleared the area of remaining explosive hazards. The team cleared close to 27,000 km of road, allowing vital humanitarian assistance to reach those in need; saving countless lives.

The work that mine action staff do has a concrete and direct impact on the lives of millions of civilians affected by conflict. Every day, countless lives are saved and changed for the better by mine action whether is clearance of land, risk education, assistance to victims or advocacy. One can only hope that in the near future the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action be a day of remembrance of what used to be.

Jean-Philippe Lambert Ste Marie is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa and a Mines Action Canada research assistant.


Mine Action is Humanitarian Action

Next Tuesday, April 4th, is the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, as declared by the UN General Assembly in December 2005.

The theme chosen this year is “Mine action is humanitarian action.”

Significant progress has been made since this day was first established, with multiple organisations and governments showing an increased effort to deal with this problem quickly and efficiently.

In fact, today, 162 states are now party to the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines and in 2014 international support for mine action reached $416.8 million (US).

However, while this is a considerable achievement, there remains a significant amount of work to be done. Every day an estimated 10 people are killed or injured by landmines or explosive remnants of war.

Further, there remain 35 countries outside of the Ottawa Teaty and 60 states and areas which are still contaminated by landmines or explosive remnants of war. This means that in 60 areas around the world parents are frightened to send their children to school, people put themselves at risk daily simply by leaving their homes and many people struggle to rebuild their lives after surviving a landmine incident. Just yesterday, three Syrian boys were killed by a landmine they thought was a toy. 

In light of this, the issue of landmine and explosive weapons contamination must be addressed through a humanitarian lens, because it is individual people who must face the very real danger of having their lives, or the life of a family member cut tragically short as a result of wars and conflict that they themselves had nothing to do with. With April 4th fast approaching, we have another opportunity to recommit ourselves to ending the suffering caused by landmines and to remind the international community that mine action is humanitarian action.

Claudia Pearson is an undergraduate student at the University of Leeds currently on exchange at the University of Ottawa.


Sri Lanka Decides to Ban Landmines

On 3 March 2016, the Sri Lankan government finally approved accession to the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. Sri Lanka will soon be the 163rd state party to the Mine Ban Treaty, as it is also known.  

Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva stated, “We decided to sign the Ottawa Convention because we have no intention of going to war again.

Sri Lanka’s ratification of the Mine Ban Treaty is a significant step that should greatly accelerate the process of mine clearance. Now, neither the government, nor any non-state actors, can exacerbate the problem any further.

Ambassador Aryasinha, the Sri Lankan representative to the United Nations speaking at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on March 2, announced that the government wishes Sri Lanka to be a mine free country by the year 2020, and that a strategic plan is currently in the making to achieve this goal.

The Extent of Contamination in Sri Lanka

Three decades of armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers left behind extensive mine and ERW contamination. The conflict came to an end in 2009, by which time it is estimated that approximately 300,000 people had been displaced.

Following the war, almost 2,064 acres of land had been contaminated and were in urgent need of clearance before displaced persons could return to their homes.

While the government decided only days ago to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty, work has been underway for some time to combat the issue of contamination. For example, in July 2010, a National Mine Action Centre was created. It has become the government's lead agency in national demining efforts. 

Furthermore, it was reported that in 2014, a number of NGOs conducted demining activities in Sri Lanka. This included a Sri Lankan non-profit, Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony (DASH), as well as two international NGOs – the Halo Trust, and Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

The work of these various organisations has had a significant impact, and as of December 2015, 2,000 acres of land had been cleared.

With the combination of the Sri Lankan government’s acceptance of the Mine Ban Treaty, and the significant progress that has already been made in terms of clearance, it seems extremely likely that by 2020, Sri Lanka will achieve its goal of being a mine free country.

Mines Action Canada welcomes this decision by the Sri Lankan government and thanks our colleagues in the Sri Lankan Campaign to Ban Landmines for their years of hard work to make this a reality.

This post is the first in a series by MAC student interns.

Claudia Pearson is an undergraduate student at University of Leeds currently on exchange in Ottawa.



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