25 Years of the Ottawa Treaty – How Civil Society Organizations Respond to Changes in Warfare and the International Political Environment

This blog is part of a series ahead of the roundtable “Protecting Civilians in Conflicts: From the Ottawa Treaty 25 years ago to the Political Declaration Against the Bombing of Civilians Today” on 29 November 2022, organized by foraus and Handicap International – Humanity and Inclusion.

Tuesday 29th November, 13:15-14:45 at Generationenhaus, Bern
To join, please register at: e.sierro@hi.org

by Jana-Christina von Dessien & Alma al-Osta


The International Campaign to Ban Landmines effectively moved the issue of anti-personnel landmines from the responsibility of those dealing with the tragic aftermath of mines to those who produce and employ them. It is a case of civil society organizations not only modifying but driving state behavior. Humanity and Inclusion, formerly Handicap International (HI) is one of the NGOs that acted as policy partner during the negotiation, drafting and adoption of the Ottawa Treaty and as operational partner after it entered into force. It resumed this role during negotiations of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas which was signed in Dublin on 18 November. How has HI evolved in the past 25 years with regards to goal setting, external relations, and the tools it employs? And how can civil society organizations continue to be a strong voice for civilian protection?

Differentiated goals & diversified strategies

The urbanization and autonomization of warfare require NGOs to diversify their goals and adapt their strategies to be able to continue pushing for the protection of civilians from explosive weapons. Because of the humanitarian nature of their work, banning certain weapons is still a long-term objective for organizations like HI. It would automatically outlaw the human suffering, the damage and destruction of critical infrastructure caused by them. But this has to be understood with certain reserve: Banning imprecise weapons would be a first step but as a result, precision-guided weapons would likely increase in production and sales which, in turn, requires regulation. Therefore, it can be the ban of a type of weapon or policy changes affecting certain military practices that civil society organizations advocate for. Legal processes take a long time to be negotiated and even longer to be implemented at the national level. From HI’s perspective, political declarations adopted at the right levels, by the right states, and at the right time are sometimes the best way to ensure immediate protection of civilians in different stages of conflict.

Mitigating fatigue & fluctuating interest

It took years for NGOs to build a solid relationship with states that understand and favor the approach of humanitarian disarmament. A certain fatigue of multilateralism in recent years, however, has states focusing on defense rather than protection of civilians. Nevertheless, HI, for example, continues to maintain close relationships with states like Austria, Ireland, Norway, or Mexico that have a strong history of supporting humanitarian disarmament in order to reach diplomatic circles to which the organization lacks access. While there is not necessarily more competition for attention to civilian protection, it ebbs and flows. In its work, however, HI encounters less compassion and interest from the public about human suffering in violent conflicts around the world. Nevertheless, NGOs have not throttled the pace at which they have been working on civilian protection for decades now. Instead, they have become smarter both in picking their fights and in carving out their expertise to be able to build solid cases.

Modern tools & avenues for new coalitions

Collecting data on the harmful impact of weapons and military operations that abuse the flexibility of international humanitarian law for interpretation remain central instruments in HI’s toolbox. But nowadays, NGOs can also share information in real time over social media to rapidly build strong evidence and to point out insufficiencies of the law in providing guidance on civilian risk mitigation and harm reduction. While recognizing the importance of treaties, they are now moving toward political declarations to advocate for stronger standards for protection. At the national level, civil society organizations experience more difficulties when building alliances due to increasing constraints on activism. Nevertheless, they still decide to join forces – most prominently with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR). Responding to the rising impact of artificial intelligence on violent conflicts, HI, for example, has started internal deliberations acknowledging that more engagement on the issue of autonomous weapons is necessary. The challenge will be to successfully adapt its advocacy work and keep up with the civilian implications of the rapidly changing realities of warfare.



Image credits: Felton Davis on flickr