25 Years of the Ottawa Treaty – or the Non-Proliferation of a Radically Simple Idea

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


2022 is a bitter year to look back at 25 years of the Ottawa Treaty’s ban on anti-personnel landmines (APL). The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks the return of the war of aggression – long believed to not only be outlawed but outdated in an interconnected, globalized world. Furthermore, a plethora of alleged violations of international law by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil is being investigated by the ICC. And the world watches the new face of warfare unfold – with weapon systems more autonomous than ever and the shifting of battle activities to civilian spaces such as urban centers. The signing of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas on November 18 prompts the question of whether Ottawa’s innovative idea can still serve as a template for civilian protection today. Or whether the treaty represents an anomaly – inept for the regulation of modern weapon systems and with a process no longer replicable.

A unique product of unique times?

The Ottawa Treaty is historically significant in two different aspects. It was the first international treaty banning an entire class of weapons used extensively by armed forces all over the globe. Unlike common arms control regimes, it is rooted in international humanitarian law. In a radically simple move, the treaty does not regulate but anathematize APL. It relies on stigmatization and is therefore dependent on civil society to meet violators with necessary forms of dis-appropriation. The treaty also stands out for the speed at which the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) brought together states outside traditional forums like the UN Conference on Disarmament that were blocked by great powers’ resistance. But Ottawa’s bold act of norm entrepreneurship was only possible on the shoulders of already established institutional frameworks like the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The ICBL also managed to attract official and public interest for the idea of a total ban. And it mobilized a critical mass of supporting states with enough political cohesion.

Despite drawing heavily on the same strategies, follow-up campaigns and treaties were unable to deliver comparably rigorous results. In addition, the liberal international order has not only come under fire by authoritarian states but can also no longer count on formerly reliable guardians. The United States’ general alignment with Ottawa’s provisions, for example, represents an important component of the ban’s effectiveness.  Its record of policy reviews or reversals in recent years, however, potentially undermines collective dis-appropriation of violators. A general fatigue of multilateralism and the current geopolitical fault lines make Ottawa an unlikely blueprint for future negotiations on civilian protection.  All the while, technological dimensions of warfare have changed drastically. Civilians are increasingly at risk from lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) which fundamentally disrupt the norms underlying the regulation of warfare.

The absence of a revolution in the face of present urgencies

Discussions by the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) in the context of the CCW have yet to produce substantial results regarding the regulation of autonomous weapons. Unlike the ICBL, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR) therefore has no institutional setting against which to contrast a complete ban. The mobilization of a critical mass for a ban of LAWS will also prove a much more uphill battle since the maximum reduction of risks has reached broad public support. In addition, proliferation issues are more complex, given that autonomous technologies consist of more dual-use components than APL. Convincing states to forego the opportunity to close gaps in technological capabilities will therefore be challenging. Despite the urgency, states are less willing to endorse a humanitarian approach to regulate LAWS. Anathematization and dis-appropriation seem to have failed to replace traditional consequentialist instruments in the long run. Therefore, while the Ottawa Treaty represents a milestone for civilian protection, it also tells the story of the non-proliferation of a radically simple idea.




Image credits: Felton Davis on flickr