The Parable of the Two Sons

by Dennis Barlow [ Mine Action Information Center ]

The Biblical parable of the two sons1 illustrates a great human dilemma often repeated in literature and life. It is a very simple story: One son responds to his father's request to work in the vineyard by declining, yet thinks better of his intention and indeed in the end does his father' bidding. The other son, keen to appear obedient, accepts the charge, but decides against actually doing the work. The rhetorical question of who has done the father's will answers itself.

This parable reminds me of the state of the Ottawa Convention.2 Four years ago in this column, I commented about the undoubted success and shortcomings of the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention.3 Those observations are, I believe, still true. Yet, is the more timely issue implied by the very nature of the Convention itself: Is it providing the guidance that induces practitioners to do good, or does it provide a forum where officials though speaking well, make meaningless conversation and so become a clanging cymbal?4

Let us review how the "sons," who said that they were going to uphold the Convention, are doing. There is at least one signatory, Venezuela, still making active use of its emplaced APLs, even while making statements at meetings that it is fully committed to the Convention. To my knowledge, no State Party has questioned Venezuela's noncompliant behavior, leaving only the International Campaign to Ban Landmines to condemn the action, calling the action "highly disturbing."5

Regarding mines retained for training (Article 3), the Landmine Monitor reports that "there is a clear history of little or no consumption [destruction] of retained mines by a significant number of States Parties."6 Eighteen countries have not reported destroying any landmines since ratifying the Convention, while 15 more of those with remaining stockpiles have not reported destroying APLs for two or more years.6

Clearance is the focal point of mine action; the Convention requires that 10 years after accession, mine clearance must be complete. At the meetings of the States Parties in Amman, Jordan last November, heavy emphasis was put on this requirement. Yet, it appears that at least 14 states will not meet their 2009 deadlines, with four failing to commence clearance operations at all.6 Indeed most of the discussion during the clearance portion of the meeting dealt with procedures for requesting extensions for clearance operations.

In spite of the overwhelming good being accomplished by the Mine Ban Convention, there are indications that actual accomplishments and adherence to its tenets are sometimes ignored in favor of rhetoric. Worse is the tendency of other signatories to close a blind eye to these shortfalls, not wishing to be accused of being negative toward fellow States Parties.

The "other sons" (in this case, nonsignatories) have acted variously. Countries that decided not to ban APLs via the Ottawa Convention are not intrinsically evil. They felt that they had a larger responsibility in defending partners (e.g., the United States), that chronic border problems necessitated APL reliance (e.g., Finland), or placed a greater emphasis and reliability on more traditional arms-control venues (e.g., India).

"In spite of the overwhelming good being accomplished by the Mine Ban Convention, there are indications that actual accomplishments and adherence to its tenets are sometimes ignored in favor of rhetoric."

The United States has adhered to the spirit of the Ottawa Convention since it was signed by the first States Parties and has not used APLs in any of the military operations in which it has been involved subsequent to the entry into force of the Convention. Complementing the non-use of APLs by the United States has been its extensive program of humanitarian mine-action programs, leadership of the Mine Action Support Group, a robust clearance research and development program, and the destruction of 3.3 million landmines.7

Most of the 30 nonsignatories have endorsed the concept of elimination of APLs and 19 attended the 8th Meeting of States Parties in Jordan. Most have also endorsed nontransfer or moratorium actions. Many countries that are not parties to the Convention have been taking steps toward it, such as cessation of production and export. If one were to assess the use of APLs today, it is generally not states who are the culprits, but factions, insurgents, drug lords, criminals and terrorists.

A review of national mine action globally reveals some interesting, if predictable, conclusions. Since the early 1990s, virtually every government and country has come to understand the insidious nature of APLs. Some countries could quickly sign the Ottawa Convention because they had no landmines, were not disposed to use landmines, or were so impressed by the need to ban landmines that they decided to override whatever military necessity APLs rendered-or perhaps they signed because the political climate provided them an altruistic persona.

The difference between these two sets of countries, signatories and nonsignatories, has been overblown; Finland and Norway, the United States and Canada, and Turkey and India are more alike in this regard than they are different. All but the most roguish of states desire to see the end of APL use. The time has come for the global mine-action community to accept all who wish to see the use and effects of landmines-as well as other explosive remnants of war-eliminated.8 The efforts that go into universalization and the finger-pointing it often engenders not only sap the energy and unity that could be focused on reducing landmines and other explosive remnants of war, but worse, creates that holier-than-thou attitude that leads to words rather than actions, recriminations rather than results, and isolation rather than inclusion. Bullet


COL (Ret) Dennis Barlow, Director of the JMU MAIC, previously was Director of Humanitarian Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Director of the Humanitarian Demining Task Force in the Pentagon. He has been the Director of the MAIC since 1996. He has supervised projects in support of the U.S. Departments of Defense and State; the governments of Switzerland, Canada and Slovenia; various U.N. agencies; and numerous NGOs. He holds advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College.


  1., Matthew 21:29-31., accessed 3 January 2008.
  2. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. Accessed 3 January 2008. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, and thus is commonly known as the Ottawa Convention.
  3. Barlow, Dennis. "The Ottawa Convention in Perspective." Journal of Mine Action 8.1 (2004). Accessed 3 January 2008.
  4. NET Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:1. Accessed 3 January 2008.
  5. Country and Area Reports. Landmine Monitor Report 2007., accessed 3 January 2008.
  6. Factsheet. Landmine Monitor Report 2007., accessed 2 January 2008.
  7. Milestones in Humanitarian Mine Action, U.S. Dept. of State. Updated 19 December 2005. Accessed 3 January 2008.
  8. Editor's Note: Some organizations consider mines and ERW to be two separate entities, since they are regulated by different legal documents (the former by the Ottawa Convention and Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the latter by CCW Protocol V). However, since mines are explosive devices that have similar effects to other ERW and it is often impossible to separate the two during clearance operations, some in the community have adopted a "working definition" (as opposed to a legal one) of ERW in which it is a blanket term that includes mines, UXO, abandoned explosive ordnance and other explosive devices.

Contact Information

Dennis Barlow
Mine Action Information Center
MSC 4902
1401 Technology Drive
Harrisonburg, VA, 22807 / USA
Tel: +1 540 568 2756
Fax: +1 540 568 8176
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