Angola Shows Ottawa Achilles Heel
by Joe Lokey
Issue 3.1 | February 1999
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Landmines are a bad thing. I know that. You know that. Everyone at Ottawa
knew that. Even the Angolan Representative who signed the Mine Ban Treaty
in Ottawa in December of 1997 knew that. But someone forgot to tell Dr. Jonas
Savimbi. Whatever we may think of him, the head of Angola's UNITA (Union for
Total Liberation of Angola) liberation group is not out of place in history
along with many others intent on being King and over-throwing what they see
as a repressive government. Landmines, it seems, are simply a tool in a deadly
As both Angolan rebel and government forces are reported to be continually
laying landmines, they appear to view the Ottawa commitments as temporarily
irrelevant. Both sides seem determined that a piece of paper is not going
to tie their hands or limit the way they win their war against each other.
The fact that landmines have killed and maimed an estimated 90,000 civilians
since the civil war began 24 years ago seems extraneous. Did the government
know they were going to violate the treaty after signing? Who knows? We all
have good intentions, but then someone holds a gun to our head.
In the Angolan context, landmines are not in the same category as nuclear,
chemical, or biological weapons nor are Angolans laboring under any delusions
than landmines are in the same category as blinding lasers or exploding bullets.
In the third world, and Africa in particular, more people die from mosquitos
or diahherra than landmines so tallying innocent post-conflict casualties
is (numerically) insignificant and worrying about "collateral" civilian casualties
during the conflict itself is somewhat pointless. Considering the nearby 1994
genocide in Rwanda of nearly a million Tutsis at the hands of Hutu extremists
using machetes and axes, discussing a few thousand landmine casualties seems
near banal. Dare we discuss a ban on machetes? Perhaps machete manufacturers
should go to prison? The Angolan dilemma is a clear demonstration of the reality
of contemporary low intensity conflicts and Ottawa reveals itself to be the
answer to a question that no one is asking. Landmines are nasty and should
never be used but they will never be "un-invented" and will only go away when
the reasons and circumstances for their use go away or clearly superior alternatives
to their use are found.
Even Cicero in 87 B.C. recognized that "In times of war, laws are forgotten."
When Grotius wrote De Jure Belli ac Pacis in 1625 (borrowing heavily from
Cicero), he too struggled with the competing concepts of jus ad bellum (those
circumstances which justified state belligerency) and jus in bello or rules
of proper conduct in hostilities. To ignore the nature of war and conflict
while discussing Ottawa is to ignore the nature of infection while designing
medicines. This is where Ottawa fails. This is why Ottawa is unenforceable.
This is why Ottawa, if not modified, will soon be relegated to the shelves
of countless other inconsequential accords. Angola is a clear and unambiguous
example of the key weakness in the Ottawa agreement. During the development
of the Treaty, its writers lacked any recognition of human history, the nature
of critical ingredients to enduring international security agreements, causes
and responses to internal insurgencies, effective coordination with other
agreements, and, as a result of these omissions, failed to demonstrate any
intellectually sound basis for implementation. In short, Ottawa lacks a simple
dose of reality.
"If a workable response to the Angolan paradox
fails to emerge from Maputo, it will become the precedent for future
abdication by every other signatory..."
Professional soldiers have long had their codes of conduct forged in the
atrocities of yesterday's Hitlers and Stalins and follow rules of war designed
to minimize civilian casualties and indiscriminate human carnage. Most of
today's developing world combatants, in sharp contrast, are rarely professional
soldiers, are usually thugs and mercenaries, conscripted and uneducated, and
follow no rules other than winning at any cost. Will the first meeting of
States Parties gathering in Maputo on May 5 who ratified the Ottawa Accord
have the courage to address this issue or will they be content to result to
their predictable moral platitudes and spout more ascerbic righteous indignation
at non-signatory states? Though there will be many in Maputo whose only skill
is telling others how they should think and behave, there will likely be no
one with any experience in modern insurgent warfare or familiar with the nature
of low intensity conflict so the outcome is fairly predictable. Reality will
be conspicuous by its absence. If a workable response to the Angolan paradox
fails to emerge from Maputo, it will become the precedent for future abdication
by every other signatory rendering the hard work of thousands as a moot and
No one who understands Angola is too surprised by any of this. After signing
the Bicesse Accords in 1991 and then declaring the ensuing election a fraud
that put the former Soviet-backed MPLA in power, Mr. Savimbi has continued
to put his personal political agenda and quest for control of Angola's diamond
wealth and other bountiful resources ahead of the best interest of peace and
the well-being of the Angolan people. The Lusaka Agreement, signed in 1994
has all but been abandoned. Angola is a mess. Angola is not unique. In fact,
it is all too much the norm.
Only 41% of Angolans have access to safe water. About 30% have access to
primary health care and that is now on the high side with roads becoming impassable.
Only about 3% of the government budget was allocated for health care in the
first place. There were an estimated 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries
but that has also undoubtedly increased in the last six months. Delivering
aid to the 11 million people of Angola would be a daunting task even without
the conflict and without the landmines.
Angola is a vast country, about twice the size of Texas, and even though
the combat is scattered throughout, it is creating an ebb and flow of refugees
and IDPs, estimated at 1.2 million, with each battle as Angolans try to escape
hostilities. In the last half of 1998 in Moxico Province, Medico International
reported that 66 people were killed or maimed in one of the highest concentrations
of incidents recorded since 1994. The primary reason was civilians transiting
formerly safe areas that had been remined by Government forces reinforcing
the defensive perimeter around Luena. Even marking the minefield was forbidden.
Mines are being laid on artery roads by UNITA to stop MONUA, FAA/Police and
commercial transports. They did, indeed, hit 40 soldiers killing 12 of them
but also killed four civilians shortly thereafter along the same road. None
of these people care what happened in Ottawa. It has made no difference to
them. It did nothing to prevent their injury or death and it will do nothing
to clear the mines in the ground today. In short, those spilling champagne
in Ottawa while they signed the treaty knew nothing of war and therein lies
the Achilles heel of the Ottawa Treaty.
The actual "do something" facet of Ottawa is it's theoretical demining premise
in which it alleges to "clear" mines not yet produced or laid by preventing,
through a ban, their production, stockpiling or use. On the surface, this
would seem a reasonable objective and a "long view" to ensure that non-existent
mines will no longer plague our children's children. To be certain, common
use has been changing though few who have studied this, except the ICBL ideologues
desperate to claim success, seriously attribute this to Ottawa since the trends
began years before the ICBL even existed. Manufacturers have been decreasing
long before the treaty due to a drastic reduction in demand by the world's
militaries since the end of the Cold War. Stocks have also been decreasing
for decades due to the increased cost of maintenance and storage of dated
munitions. Finally, in spite of wildly baseless and irresponsible conjecture
to the contrary, widespread use of APL globally has been drastically reduced
due to the lack of any large-scale military operations since Desert Storm.
The Serbian mines in Kosovo along the Albanian border are a notable exception.
The premise of the Ottawa convention, however, was based on the perceived
use and employment of landmines in contemporary, large scale, modern military
activities during warfare between nation states. Where Ottawa fails, and is
so vividly demonstrated in Angola, is that it, in no way, recognizes the world
today and changed nature of warfare and internal conflicts. There are no "armies"
to regulate with the worse offenders being non-state actors. There are no
"countries" to punish with the predominant use coming from rebel groups, mercenaries,
drug cartels, insurgents, or weak and unstable central governments. We can't
stop North Korea from manufacturing drugs or nuclear weapons so how do we
stop them from exporting landmines? The Angolan government, even while recognizing
the benefits of a mine-free world, also recognizes that mines are an integral
part of a bigger security equation for smaller nations that shortsighted,
myopic humanitarians are incapable of seeing. Angolans on both sides see their
survival threatened and landmines as part of the solution since none of the
self-righteous wealthier countries are sending their troops to assist or to
replace the defensive capabilities landmines give them.
"Therein lies the absurd reality of Ottawa as it
does little but pontificates moral righteousness without realistic or
logical alternatives to conflict resolution."
The Norwegian People's Aid is clearing mines in Angola and has recently needed
to clear old defensive minefields around Malanje to make space for refugee
camps. They have appealed for both sides to quit laying mines and have, on
their web site, called on the international community to consider sanctions
against Angola for violating their Ottawa commitments. This request is out
of frustration for realistic and plausible answers because even they must
recognize the futility of imposing unobtainable sanctions on a war-torn nation.
Therein lies the absurd reality of Ottawa as it does little but pontificates
moral righteousness without realistic or logical alternatives to conflict
resolution. Coupled with no enforcement provisions, this makes the treaty
another potentially useless piece of paper to be debated by academics, diplomats,
and professional advocates living in their own separate reality. They all
too frequently lament the horrors of war at their banquet tables but are woefully
unable and unwilling to get their hands dirty with it's bloody consequences.
The German charity mine clearance group People Against Landmines (MgM) is
clearing high pressure, key transport routes to enable the flow of refugees
through suspected mined areas. The Director of MgM, Hendrik Ehlers, said that
"We are finding good conditions for our work in emergency situations. Our
work in Angola was never as necessary as it is today but, unfortunately, some
donors don't understand that if you sanction the government, you are only
hurting the people as in Iraq." The clearest demonstration that Ottawa is
more smoke and shadows than substance is that there is no compelling provision
in the treaty to clear mines. While it laughingly demands war-devastated countries
somehow materialize the resources to clear their own mines after signing the
treaty, it makes no commitment or provision for acquiring the resources to
do so. Article 5 (Destruction of Mines) simply says they will do it in ten
years and then request permission to take longer. What happens if permission
is denied? On what basis? What outside body is going to determine another
nation's spending priorities?
In Mexico City recently, a Colombian military officer said he wanted his
mines cleared too but his country can't afford to clear them. "If you want
them cleared, you clear them." In frustration, clearance groups observe that
donors seem anxious to fund endless ICBL conferences and meetings but the
funding into clearing mines, especially in countries like Angola has not been
forthcoming as has been highlighted in Newsweek and several other publications
recently. Again, the Angola situation demonstrates that Ottawa emphasizes
ideals but ignores the realties and needs of real people shedding real blood
on the ground. Clearance and victim assistance are an afterthought in the
Ottawa construct and must be emphasized more if meaningful progress is to
be made. If we believe Article 6 (International Cooperation and Assistance)
is going to "force" countries to "contribute" then we may be delusional here
as well. Aid and charity can never be compelled by treaty or any other mechanism
or it's not aid or charity and the compelling mechanism is simply international
banditry and extortion.
If there is any lesson that Ottawa teaches it is that moral imperatives always
create logical inconsistencies. As an example of the weak and inconsistent
logic surrounding the treaty, Ottawa ideologues denounce landmines as having
no military utility. They do this most often by misquoting aged retired general
officers who had little or nothing to do with ground warfare doctrine while
on active duty. The problem is in reconciling that view with the estimated
70 million in the ground today, the hundreds of millions used in the past,
the tens of millions in military stocks, and their continued use in conflict.
No utility? (I'll save the debate here for a future article) Is military utility
really relevant to a farmer using them to protect his family? It may not be
military but they do have utility. If this is an abhorrent weapon then let's
provide him an alternative. We cannot dismiss something as having "no utility"
when hundreds of millions are scattered about clearly having had a "use" to
those who laid them. If they are "unacceptable," then what do we tell him
There is, however, little doubt that landmine use presents an unacceptable
obstacle to economic reconstruction in Angola impeding resettlement, rehabilitation,
and reconstitution of Angola's agricultural production capacities. But the
lessons of landmine utility (real or imagined) in Angola will apply to other
countries as well. Whether they signed or not, any government responsible
for the security of its people will use any means available to ensure their
security and survival. And in a world of tyrants and dictators, freedom fighters
will continue to use cheap, simple and effective weapons, like landmines,
to win against stronger and more technologically sophisticated governments
they view as the oppressors.
"Stigmatizing" a landmine user or labeling them as "criminals" is somewhat
of a cruel hoax. No one really knows what "stigmatize" really means or what
it entails. We, as a global community, can't even seem to get two lousy Libyan
terrorists before a court, we can't bring Slobodan Milosovic to account for
the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, and we can't even seem
to find Osama Bin Laden. We have "stigmatized" the military regime in Myanmar
(Burma) and other places with no effect. Those who are suggesting that a Tamil
separatist will somehow be dragged in chains before the World Court at no
small cost for using a mine against the Sri Lankan army need to reexamine
their priorities. How do we "prosecute" a Khmer Rouge army that laid millions
but no longer exists? Do we form Nuremburg-like courts that will hunt landmine
users like Nazi war criminals for generations? Some would say "yes" which
is why this is not funnier than it would otherwise be.
Telling a government what it can or can't do in its own self-defense of its
people is not only arrogant but counterproductive when it comes from rich
countries with more technology and power, i.e., more alternatives to landmines.
It is also often racial and neocolonialist as white governments are perceived
as (once again) telling developing worlds that their moral standards are corrupt
and "we know what's good for you even if you don't." If Ottawa is to mean
anything, it will have to be modified to present viable alternatives that
provide an equivalent level of peace and security. Just saying "no" is not
Countries who have been the most vocal in demanding users be labeled "outlaws"
should, if they are sincere, volunteer their own soldiers and citizens to
replace landmines in defense of a perimeter or other national resources at
risk. Something tells me that when it comes to shedding their own blood, even
the most ardent and vocal of ban supporting countries become silent, not so
courageous, and their vocal chords go pleasantly numb. They have, after all,
shown nothing in the way of courage or respect for the basic rights of a people
to engage in legitimate self-defence. Their absurd moralistic cackling is
an anathema to anyone who has had to risk their life in the face of an armed
enemy. Their pompous platitudes of finger-waving righteousness are an insult
to anyone who has had to take up arms to defend their families against invading
armies, insurgents, or bandits.
The lessons of Angola will be played out over and over again in other conflicts.
We will then see that the only realistic alternative to eliminating landmines
is more dead soldiers. The supporters of the ban, both as individuals and
as governments, should approach the Angolan government and Jonas Savimbi and
volunteer themselves to replace their landmines if they feel their cause is
just. Most indications are, however, that these professional moralists are
averse and oblivious to anything but the sound of their own voices. Angolans,
in the mean time, want to know when Ottawa will be relevant to them and their
lives. I suspect "not soon" and have no reason to believe otherwise...for
now. But the treaty as is provides a basis for hope if it can be changed to
reflect action instead of its current passivity.
The Ottawa treaty was remarkable for all the normal paradigms it shattered.
I have always admired the strength and courage of civil society forces to
accomplish anything in the face of governmental resistance and the manifestation
of this treaty is, in that regard, noteworthy. It is, however, flawed in a
way Angola so vividly demonstrates. There is also little doubting the resolve
and commitment of many of the ban supporters who see universalization (an
ambiguous term and difficult to translate at best) as the ultimate objective.
But, after that, what? If Ottawa is to be meaningful, it must have teeth.
Without recognition of the realities of warfare, the right of self-defense,
and the provision of alternatives to landmines, the Angolan scenario will
replicate itself time and time again. To this end, we call for a more expansive
and thoughtful dialogue with reasonable timetable for implementation and rational
people with competence in conflict resolution and negotiation discussing the
challenges ahead. The children of Angola and elsewhere deserve nothing less.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this paper
represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of James
Madison University or the U.S. Department of Defense.