Moments of magnitude in the world of disarmament are rare – and to witness two such moments in as many weeks is rarer still.
Last month, decisions were announced that in due course might be regarded as historic and have the potential to make a real impact for some of the millions of people affected by conflict around the world.
In a world facing numerous crises it can feel that things are only slipping backwards, but we at MAG believe some of the decisions of the past weeks represent significant steps forward.
Some background first.
For years now, MAG and many other organisations have been urging governments around the world to address the devastating humanitarian impact caused by using explosive weapons in populated areas.
Our colleagues have seen first-hand the deadly consequences these weapons have on people and communities in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Myanmar and now Ukraine. Many of my colleagues are from the communities afflicted and many are burdened by their own personal and very tragic experiences.
When these weapons are used in towns and cities, nine out 10 people injured or killed are civilians. The longer-term impact, like the presence of unexploded ordnance and the destruction to essential infrastructure like schools, hospitals and even water supplies, continues to affect people long after conflict ends.
As part of the response to the increasing urbanisation of conflict, Ireland has been leading a political process since 2019 to get countries to agree to what is known as a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas. The Political Declaration - which sets clear guidelines to limit the use of explosive weapons in urban areas, reaffirms the importance of upholding international humanitarian law, and help strengthen the protection of civilians - has the potential, if fully implemented, to save many lives.
That’s why we were very pleased to hear the United Kingdom announce during a recent meeting at the United Nations in Geneva that they intend to sign the Declaration. Just a couple of days before, MAG had co-hosted an event at the UK Parliament with British and Ukrainian MPs to raise further awareness on this issue and urge the UK government to sign on. We were also encouraged to see many other states, such as France and the US, also signal their intention to join. As an organisation, we continue to urge states to endorse the Declaration at the official signing ceremony later this year.
The simple truth is that the more states that commit to and implement this Political Declaration, the more effective its impact on people affected by conflict could be.
Just days after the Political Declaration was finalised, the United States government announced a significant change to its Anti-Personnel Landmine Policy, committing once again to not using these indiscriminate weapons outside of the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, the US aims to join the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention that over 160 countries are already party to. The US is the world’s largest mine action donor, and this latest announcement is a further step towards reducing the suffering caused to civilians by anti-personnel landmines.
Such meetings and announcements rarely make headline news. But they have the potential to positively impact the lives of many people around the world.
That’s why I believe we at MAG have a responsibility to help shape and advance policy that will serve most effectively the communities we serve.
The decisions made in the past few weeks will undoubtedly change lives for the better. When explosive weapons are used in urban areas or when indiscriminate weapons like landmines are used, the most affected are always civilians – like families who are simply trying to live their lives as best they can amidst or post-conflict.
This is something the people I met in Bosnia and Herzegovina during a recent visit know all too well. The consequences of the Bosnian conflict – some 30 years ago – are still very much being felt. A mine clearance site I visited was situated just a few metres away from a public swimming pool where families were enjoying an afternoon of leisure.
With war now returning to Europe in Ukraine, it served as a stark reminder that the legacy of war, even decades on, continues to affect innocent people long after international attention has moved on.
The world must not turn away from addressing this persistent threat, both through political and financial commitments.
That’s why MAG teams are hard at work - whether in the halls of the United Nations and Westminster, or in the fields of Bosnia and beyond: to ensure that the fight against the deadly legacy of war and the havoc it wreaks on communities is a top priority for world leaders, and to ultimately enable families and communities to live safely and free from fear.