March 13, 2008

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Lectures on Landmine Issues

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Last night, Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate Rae McGrath delivered a public lecture about indiscriminate weapons and civil society’s role in prohibiting them.
“What I’m going to talk to you about relates to the experience of hundreds and thousands of people, perhaps millions of people around the world. To some extent I will be speaking on behalf of some of those people who can’t speak for themselves,” said McGrath at the beginning of the lecture, which was held in Goldwin Smith Hall.
According to a report released by Landmine Monitor in 2007, at least 99 countries are affected by mined areas. As of Aug. 2007, there were approximately 473,000 mine survivors in the world. Since landmines are designed to maim, rather than to kill their victims, many survivors are handicapped and require extensive rehabilitation. Most of the casualties are civilians who live in countries that are now at peace.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which McGrath co-founded, was the driving force behind the Mines Ban Treaty. The treaty now boasts the support of 153 countries since its ratification in 1999. The United States is one of the 37 countries that have not signed the treaty.
Although the treaty focuses on antipersonnel landmines, McGrath claimed that its success goes beyond that.
“We didn’t just ban antipersonnel mines, we [have also] effectively banned anti-tank mines and anti-vehicle mines. We demonized the weapon. We made it so unacceptable … that the political cost of laying a landmine is high,” said McGrath, who is also the founder of a leading landmine clearance organization, Mines Advisory Group.
McGrath also emphasized that the importance of civil society in the banning of landmines.
“I’m not talking about ICBL. We’re talking about ‘we.’ Unless you’re actually part of the government … or you’re a serving military, then you are civil society. You’re doing this with us,” stressed McGrath.
Apart from landmines, McGrath also actively promotes an international ban on cluster munitions. These weapons “come in all shapes and sizes.” McGrath explained how the weapon can kill indiscriminately.
“You have a container. The container exists only to carry the submunitions to a place above the target area. When it gets above the target area, the container opens up and it allows the submunitions to fly free … if it can make a hole in the tank, imagine what it can do to you,” said McGrath, who now works for Handicap International Network, one of the founding organizations of Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC).
This May, a treaty to ban cluster munitions is going to be negotiated in Dublin, Ireland. Although more than 100 countries plan on attending the negotiation, the U.S. is not going to be present. In an interview prior to the lecture, McGrath explained why the American public has the duty to pressure the government: “It’s important that people, particularly the United States, understand [the treaty] is going on … It’s a great privilege to live in a democracy, but it’s a privilege that brings some duties. Some of those duties are to make sure that injustice is dealt with and you don’t just sit back and let your government do that. Voting is a very small part of living in a democracy. It’s actually being active and making your voice heard that are important,” said McGrath.
He further explained why the U.S. stayed out of the treaty to ban cluster munitions.
“First of all, they’re really worried … They have invested heavily, and rather stupidly, on cluster munitions, [which] are a large part of their armory. And it would be a major problem to get rid of them … It’s going to cost them money but in the end it’s going to cost them money anyway [because] a lot of the companies in the U.S. that make those weapons have already begun to look at other things to make. They can’t exist just on selling cluster munitions to the United States. And if all the other countries that are likely customers stop buying them, the U.S. has to find another solution anyway,” said McGrath.
McGrath also implied that technological advancement in communication is a key strength of these civil society organizations.
“We gave voice to a lot of people who normally wouldn’t have [voices, by] putting computers in places affected by landmines … So people from those communities can talk directly to the diplomats in conferences,” McGrath said.
Prof. Max Pfeffer, development sociology, gave the introduction at the beginning of the lecture.
“I think [the talk] will inspire more interest in the role civil society organizations can play and how we can understand the role of those organizations to create social change,” Pfeffer said in an interview prior to the lecture.
McGrath also met with the Cornell MineSweeper team yesterday afternoon.
“I really want to congratulate Cornell for allowing this young team the freedom to develop the idea. What excited me the most was that the team … hasn’t made the mistake of so many other groups that set out to find the solution. They’ve really done their research and they’re developing something that’s very flexible. The next step for them is to go to somewhere with the problem of landmines, and I’ve promise them that I will put them in touch with people who can help them to take this next step,” said McGrath.
Today, McGrath will appear in a development sociology class section, DSOC 481: Global Conflict and Terrorism. The course will be held in 100 Caldwell Hall from 2:55 to 4:10 p.m. The class section is opened to visitors.