Columbia International Affairs Online: Course Packs and Syllabi


Virtual Activism: Survivors and the Mine Ban Treaty
Kenneth R. Rutherford*
Georgetown Journal of International Affairs
Volume 1, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2000


On December 16, 1993, while working as a credit union training officer in southwestern Somalia, my vehicle ran over a landmine. Because I had a handheld radio, I was able to call for assistance and was airlifted to a hospital. Nevertheless, my right leg had to be amputated immediately, and after seven surgeries my left leg was also amputated. Comparatively speaking, I was lucky.

Information technology would soon help ban the weapon that almost killed me, and that maims or kills more than 20,000 people each year. The Internet would soon prove instrumental in disseminating information and gathering support for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) as well as in helping reduce coalition–building costs while increasing international attention for the landmine ban and victim assistance issues. The Internet helped bridge the traditional North–South non–governmental organization (NGO) divide and achieve the Mine Ban Treaty in record time. While the Internet cannot substitute for person–to–person interaction–which remains crucial–it does enhance NGO activities and lobbying practices. The Internet also helps NGOs counter doublespeak and readily–offered, vague commitments from government officials. Furthermore, through it, key NGO diplomatic and lobbying functions can be coordinated and performed from anywhere in the world, thereby ensuring a nearly universal monitor on government behavior.


In 1995, I had lunch with Jerry White, an American who lost his right leg in 1984 when he stepped on a landmine while hiking in Israel. As a specialist in tracking weapons of mass destruction for a project based in Washington, D.C., Jerry was appalled to learn that every twenty–two minutes someone steps on a landmine. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that more civilians have been killed or maimed by landmines than by biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons combined. Both of us realized how our own personal situations were unlike those of hundreds of thousands of landmine victims around the world. In many mine–infested countries, people earn less than $5,000 per year. The most basic rehabilitation costs at least $10,000. To date, my rehabilitation costs have totaled more than $500,000.

The following week, Jerry invited me to Vienna to attend the Review Conference for the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) that would strengthen the landmines protocol, which at the time was the only existing legal document controlling landmine use. In Vienna, Jerry and I met many NGO representatives campaigning for a ban under the umbrella of the ICBL, a coalition of NGOs from many countries. Realizing the need to strengthen the voice of landmine survivors both within the ICBL and the international community, we announced the creation of the Landmine Survivors Network (LSN) in April of 1996 in Geneva. In addition to amplifying the voices of survivors, Jerry and I wanted to help mine victims and their families recover and resume their roles as contributing members of society. We were faced with many difficulties, however, including lack of both the financial resources and the infrastructure with which to disseminate our message worldwide. The LSN immediately joined the ICBL, which was just beginning to rely upon the Internet to develop a nearly global coalition of more than 1,000 NGOs. The ICBL helped initiate a dramatic transformation in international affairs by encouraging governments to ban landmines, which were widely used by nearly every military in the world. This goal was achieved in 1997 with the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty by 123 countries.

From the ICBL’s inception in 1991 and the LSN’s founding in 1995, the fax and telephone were important for internal communications. E–mail, however, soon proved to be an instrumental communication tool for both organizations. ICBL members, including the LSN, sent e–mails to policymakers, encouraging them to join the ban movement’s efforts. In addition, the ICBL and LSN Web sites educated the public about the landmine issue and, most importantly, helped monitor state landmine behavior and policies. LSN, for example, is currently monitoring the progress of landmine victim assistance funding and programs, an important part of the Mine Ban Treaty obligations. With support of the UN Mine Action Service and the UN Office for Project Services, the LSN has developed a free online database that tracks assistance resources and programs worldwide.

Bridging the North–South Divide

The ICBL’s creation of a wide–ranging coalition with ethnic, geographic, and religious diversity was one of the campaign’s major accomplishments. That the ICBL built a global coalition of more than 1,000 NGOs is even more impressive given the logistical difficulties and expenses involved. The Internet allowed the ICBL to reach out to NGOs across geographical space in an effort to broaden and expand its membership base. Most importantly, the Internet allowed the ICBL to expand into developing countries at minimal cost. The low cost and ease with which the Internet could be used enhanced the ICBL’s political strategy to attract as many states as possible in order to counter treaty opposition from major powers such as China, Russia, and the United States. Moreover, since most landmines are found in underdeveloped countries, it was symbolically important and more effective for treaty implementation to encourage NGOs from developing nations to join the campaign. The ICBL incorporated NGOs from these developing nations into the decision–making process, providing NGOs from most of the world’s most heavily mined areas with a voice and an inexpensive avenue through which to provide field data. NGOs in wealthy countries then disseminated this data to governmental representatives, the media, and the public. It was crucial to show that the campaign was not just a European and North American effort, but a truly global one, especially since most landmine–infested countries are in the South.

In planning large international landmine conferences, especially those in underdeveloped countries such as Cambodia, Mozambique, and Jordan, e–mail was crucial. These conferences were very important to the ICBL because they helped broaden campaign involvement to include NGOs in less–developed countries. The ICBL’s Cambodia Conference in June of 1995 was the first international landmine conference held in a landmine–infested country, as well as the first conference organized by e–mail. In July of 1998, the LSN hosted the Middle East Conference on Landmine Injury and Rehabilitation, which was planned primarily through e–mail. To organize the conference, located in Jordan, LSN staff used the Internet to extend invitations and plan visas and travel logistics for nearly forty landmine survivors and more than thirty international public health experts from nearly every Middle East country. The conference allowed for informational and professional exchanges among a host of rehabilitation specialists, landmine survivors, and governing authorities, including representatives from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it provided a platform from which Her Majesty Queen Noor announced that Jordan would sign the treaty, making it one of the first Arab countries to do so.

After the 1997 treaty signing, the ICBL encouraged nascent national landmine ban campaigns to use the Internet in order to stay in contact with the International Campaign. Funding for some of these technologies came from the Landmines Project at the Open Society Institute (OSI), which supported some communications costs for NGOs. Individual NGOs, such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), supported procurement of communications technologies by forming a small grants project funded by Comic Relief, a group that raises money every other year for African development projects. MAG donated some of these funds to landmine ban activists.


Circumventing Traditional Communications Controls

The Internet proved to be a cheap communication tool through which NGOs in developing countries could furnish information to the ICBL for use at the international political level. In some cases, the Internet was the only channel open to NGOs operating in countries in which the government (or neighboring governments) imposed tight communications controls. A campaign leader in Central Asia noted that the domestic government would often restrict or block local communications, leaving the Internet as his only outlet for communication with the ICBL. A prominent leader in the Kenyan Campaign to Ban Landmines, Dr. Walter Odhiambo, said that NGOs in the South can only influence their governments when two factors come into play–the Internet and pressure from an international coalition–especially if it includes countries that have economic and political influence through bilateral and multilateral lending agencies. The coupling of the Internet and an international coalition, therefore, may be one of the only means through which NGOs in non–democratic countries may influence their authoritarian political leaders.

By 1997, internal ICBL communication and information dissemination was conducted almost exclusively through e–mail, coordinated by Liz Bernstein, and through its Web site, managed by Kjell Knudsen. While Knudsen was based in Oslo, Norway, Bernstein coordinated the ICBL communications network from two continents: Africa and North America. In all likelihood, Bernstein would not have been able to maintain her high level of intensity had she relied on the telephone and fax as primary tools of communication.


Building a Virtual Organization

While the ICBL members had different reasons for being part of the movement, their activities required coordination with each other in order to achieve their common goal of a landmine ban. The ICBL did not have a hierarchical organizational structure, but rather a virtual organizational structure that did not require a physical or formal institutional presence. While keeping members focused on the common goal of banning landmines, ICBL leaders encouraged members to decide their own lobbying, media, and fundraising tactics and to select those that were most appropriate for their own local environments.

Nonetheless, the Internet allowed NGOs to speak with a collective voice. On March 1, 2000, the LSN made an appeal to President Bill Clinton. We used the Internet to invite landmine survivors to sign on to the appeal, sending e–mails directly to survivors and to NGOs working with survivors through the ICBL e–mail network. In turn, survivors e–mailed their approval as signatories to the LSN headquarters in Washington, D.C. Within several weeks, we had collected more than 1,300 landmine survivor signatures from individuals in fifteen countries, including those heavily mined such as Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Jordan, Mozambique, Russia, and Vietnam. Regular fax, telephone, and mail correspondence would not have been as effective and rapid in responding quickly to the various supporters of the appeal and in disseminating information worldwide, because the state–controlled telephone and mail systems of many of these countries, such as Angola, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, are fragile or non–existent.


Coalition Building

At the LSN, we used the Internet to help coordinate and collect landmine survivor and assistance information from our five LSN peer support networks in landmine–infested countries–Bosnia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Jordan, and Mozambique. Before establishing the networks, we found that in heavily mined countries there was little continuity regarding who is doing what, with whom, where, and with what result. It was noted that there needed to be greater collaboration and communication among international organizations, local groups, and government ministries to avoid service duplication and competition, and to promote coordinated action to address urgent needs. Information technologies, however, were not integrated to solve these challenges. To address this problem, LSN began collecting documented information regarding the roles and locations of organizations, groups, and ministries involved in support for landmine victims. This information was then entered into a user–friendly database published over the Internet. The information on the needs of survivors and the organizations that help them was then readily available to those working in the field and to all with Internet access.

E–mail also facilitated our efforts to increase attention to the plight of landmine victims and assistance on both the ICBL and international agendas. In late 1995, for example, very few people in the ICBL were pushing for victim assistance. Several NGOs, such as the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Handicap International, and the International Committee for the Red Cross, provided prosthetics and other assistance on the ground. Yet NGOs were not lobbying for such assistance as part of the negotiations for solving the landmine problem. In October 1996, we unveiled a prototype of the first database to track the needs of mine victims worldwide and the limited resources to help them. The LSN database began to serve as a small clearinghouse of information and resources. In 1997, we proposed the establishment of a landmine survivor register and caregiver database on the Internet that could be used by the media, policymakers, international organizations, de–miners, the military, landmine survivors, and others wishing to become involved or learn more about the realities of the landmine problem. By 1998, the database contained profiles of scores of landmine survivors and their families in Mozambique, Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. It also contained detailed information on over 1,000 organizations and was used by media and NGOs alike as a source of information about the world’s mine–affected communities. One of the tangible results of our landmine victim assistance strategies was the inclusion of landmine victim assistance into the Mine Ban Treaty, which makes it the first time in the world’s history that a disarmament treaty incorporated assistance language for victims of the weapon being banned.


Countering Political Doublespeak

The ICBL used the Internet to convince governments to sign the landmine ban treaty and to hold them accountable for their treaty commitments. For example, during the final treaty drafting conference in September of 1997 in Oslo, the Internet made a crucial difference. During these important negotiations, the Internet enabled Stephen Goose, Jody Wlliams, and other ICBL members to coordinate their responses to the sundry government policies and conference statements. To ensure government decision–makers were fulfilling their countries’ commitments, ICBL members e–mailed national landmine ban campaigns in each country, directing them to contact and lobby their governments about critical issues and policies discussed at the treaty negotiations. These campaigns, in turn, e–mailed the ICBL activists in Oslo with updates regarding their governments’ positions.5 This Internet–based communication network proved extremely useful to NGO activists in holding states accountable to their previous landmine policy commitments.

The ICBL is still relying on the Internet to systematically and regularly document government progress on treaty implementation. E–mail allows the ICBL to coordinate NGO researchers in more than seventy countries who track government landmine policies and activities. Using e–mail as the primary coordination tool has allowed the ICBL and its researchers to work more closely together in an organized effort to monitor, for the first time in the world’s history, a disarmament treaty. The Landmine Monitor coordinators send instructions and guidelines through e–mail to the researchers. The researcher reports are then posted on a secure ICBL Web site, which Landmine Monitor coordinators and other ICBL–approved researchers can read and provide feedback. The final product will be a book scheduled to be released at the Second States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty conference in Geneva in September 2000 and then disseminated through the Internet.


No Substitute for Person–to–Person Interaction

Nevertheless, solely crediting the Internet for the ICBL’s success in initiating and sustaining momentum toward achieving and implementing the Mine Ban Treaty and for the LSN’s success in promoting landmine victim assistance is not completely accurate for two reasons. First, the ICBL was created in 1991. The Internet was not a familiar or frequently utilized communication tool until several years later. Even in 1995, at the LSN’s inception, e–mail was just becoming widely available. During the early years, therefore, the campaign relied extensively on the telephone and fax for communication. E–mail communications became more important later for both the ICBL and LSN as information technology became more common and the advantages of e–mail were being realized. Second, person–to–person meetings among ICBL representatives and governmental officials were important in building a strong relationship between the ICBL and governments.

Moreover, before 1996, e–mail communication with governments was difficult for several reasons. First, many governments, including those in developed countries, did not have e–mail capabilities. Second, even when governments had an e–mail infrastructure, some diplomats simply preferred telephone conversations and fax correspondence to e–mail. Because of these challenges in using the Internet to communicate with government decision–makers, NGO leaders emphasized personal lobbying, such as meeting regularly with government officials.

While LSN’s Internet–based activities, including its database, are useful to keep track of and promote landmine survivor needs, they can neither meet those needs nor ban landmines. Our efforts to ban landmines and help survivors would not have succeeded without engaging governments. Yet at LSN, we found that by incorporating information technology into our organization, we were better able to communicate messages and strategies among landmine survivors and their caregivers.


Note *:  Kenneth R. Rutherford is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Missouri State University and Co–Founder of the Landmine Survivors Network. Back.