On December 13th, Sri Lanka became the 163rd nation to sign the International Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Landmines (APLs). APLs are a particularly insidious weapon in that they cannot discriminate between military personnel and civilians and remain a threat to communities for decades after. Since the formation of the treaty in 1997, there has been an increase in literature refuting the strategic value of APLs and highlighting the high burden they place on civilians, who account for 70-85% of all casualties. Sri Lanka’s agreement to the Mine Ban Treaty contributes to the shift in norms away from use, production and trade of APLs.
While the destructive use of landmines was showcased in Sri Lanka’s internal conflict, Sri Lankan diplomats have anchored their commitment to the treaty to the international demilitarisation imperative. Vidya Abhayagu-nawardena, Coordinator of the Sri Lankan Campaign to Ban Landmines, stated: “accession to the Mine Ban Treaty reconnects Sri Lanka to the world map of disarmament.” Likewise, Rohan Perera, a member of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN, said, “as a full state party, we look forward to taking our place in the promotion of this Convention, including through capacity-building and mine clearance.” Accordingly, the government has set their aim to be ‘mine threat free’ by April 4, 2020 – the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.
Indeed, the demining process is both labour and capital intensive and requires help from the international community. In conjunction with NGOs, such as the Halo Trust, Mines Advisory Group and DASH, Sri Lanka has already cleared 2000 square kilometres of land but 64 square kilometres of minefields remain contaminated. A lack of maps on the location of undetonated mines and insufficient flair machines (which safely detonate landmines) have slowed this process and hindered the return of displaced people to the Northern and Eastern regions. In a post-war era of transparency about the scope of APL use during the civil war, the Sri Lankan army report never producing APLs, however they acknowledge importing them from Belgium, China, Italy, Pakistan, Portugal and the U.S. This redoubles the focus on ending the international production of APLs and combating the opacity that surrounds the international weapons trade.
In the 20 years since the treaty was formed, Sri Lanka has suffered from the extensive use of landmines during Civil War conflict with the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Landmine Monitor estimates that APLs killed and injured 21,000 people during the 26-year long war. However, the end of the civil war in 2009 and the election of a new government in 2015 spurred a change in policy. Committing to the treaty’s requirements to destroy all stockpiles, clear mine areas and assist victims of landmines is a capstone to Sri Lanka’s post-war reconstruction efforts. The government has now also commenced consultation to join Protocol V – the Convention on Conventional Weapons.
Though APLs are an ostensibly antiquated weapon, major military powers, such as the U.S., Russia, China, Egypt and Iran have yet to join the treaty. Hopefully, Sri Lanka’s agreement to the Mine Ban treaty will encourage neighbouring non-signatories in South Asia, such as India, Pakistan, and Nepal, to join as well.