*Why did you become interested in activity for banning antipersonnel mines?*
Landmines are different from other conventional weapons. When a war is over, the landmines stay in the ground and continue to kill for decades. Guns go home with the soldiers, but landmines are designed to kill mindlessly, out of control, for years. And obviously, if a war has been over for years, the people the landmines are killing are all innocent civilians. Even during wars, landmines cannot tell the difference between a soldier and a civilian. They are indiscriminate.
For me personally, as soon as I thought about how landmines work, the issue was a no-brainer. It is so easy to understand why landmines are different from other conventional weapons – once you think about it. But even soldiers from the Vietnam War had said that when they were fighting in that war, the landmine was just one of any number of weapons to use in the fighting. It wasn’t until they began to think about the aftermath and the legacy of landmines that they recognized the long-term, indiscriminate impact of the weapon.
One of the things about the landmine campaign that fascinated me immediately was that if you simply wanted to work on the humanitarian aspect of the landmine problem and keep it narrowly focused, you could do that. But you could also use the issue as a prism through which to talk about larger issues of the laws of war and the means and methods of warfare. It captured my imagination!
*Before you got involved with ICBL, you had been teaching English and Spanish as a second language. What was Spanish intended for? Why this language?*
Spanish is the second most spoken language in the Americas, and the mother tongue of 15% of the people living in my country – the United States. So most of the time if you are to learn – or teach! – a second language, it will actually be Spanish.
*Why do you have such a huge desire to travel and teach in several countries? Is this a wish to learn about other cultures, nationalities?*
Teaching English in Mexico was an eye-opener as it was my first exposure to extreme poverty. After I came back home, I became concerned about US involvement in a civil war in El Salvador and became involved in work to stop this intervention. For a few years I led delegations to Central America as coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project, and served as the deputy director of organization Medical Aid for El Salvador developing humanitarian relief projects. This experience, and later my work coordinating the international efforts to ban landmines made me clearly see that what happens even in seemingly faraway places is relevant to the whole world, and that bringing together that people that strive for a better, peaceful, more just world in different countries can really have a powerful impact.
*It seems that after the experiences of the two world wars, we should solve all our problems by means of dialogue. Unfortunately, things are different, and many civilians are dying in military operations. Why does it happen?*
It is sad to see that history does not seem to have taught us the most important lesson – that violence only feeds violence, and conflicts inevitably produce more conflicts, deaths and devastation. Unfortunately, the “myths” and rhetoric of war remain very strong. Take the example of the old myth that if you want peace you have to prepare for war. We must challenge this. We must challenge the glorification of war and the acceptance of violence as a means to resolve conflicts and controversies. If we want to prevent armed conflict we must not only work to demilitarize our planet, we must work to demilitarize hearts and minds as well. Changing the way people think about security and the way people think about peace is fundamental to making sure the history of conflict does not keep repeating itself.
*Don’t you think at times that this is a nonsensical effort? Thousands of people worldwide demand to ban antipersonnel mines, and in spite of this, the world of army remains silent as if under a spell…*
When we set out to ban antipersonnel mines, at a time – the early ‘90s – when these weapons were in widespread use by most armies in the world, people thought that we were just a bunch of utopian dreamers, and we could never make it. However, thanks to the mobilization of people from across the world, we showed that we could turn the utopian dream into reality. As recently as last year, we showed that this could be done again – urged by international civil society, nearly 100 countries signed a new convention banning another indiscriminate weapon: cluster munitions. This is no “miracle” – it is the result of years of long years of hard and tireless work by individuals from all over the world who believe that it is possible change the way in which we – and our leaders – perceive security and promote choices that can benefit the security and well-being of all humankind.
*Perhaps people find it indifferent in what kind of world we live? Somewhere in Ecuador there are no medicines, and the war still lasts in Mauritania, but this does not concern us. Perhaps it is really that man is interested in the way in which man lives?*
It is a mistake to think that certain problems do not concern us, only because they happen thousands of miles away from us and affect people we have never met, or whom we perceive as “different” from us. The world we live in is increasingly interconnected, and what happens in seemingly remote places can affect all of us in the form of violence, conflict, insecurity.
We must understand that global security, the security of each and every one of us, does not lie in filling this world with more and more weapons, which inevitably fuel violent conflict, but in addressing “human security” needs – the need of all women, men and children to live free from fear and free from want. By providing the majority of the planet’s inhabitants with a stake in and hope for their own future, the root causes of conflict can be diminished. We increase opportunities to move away from reacting to violent conflict and toward its prevention. We move toward developing a sustainable peace. This is the fundamental linchpin upon which the security of us all ultimately rests, and we all need to understand this and collectively work towards this.
*Why do you think there is still such a small appreciation of the problem of antipersonnel mines? Why are we still speaking about it?*
The mobilization of international civil society started in the early ‘90s led to the signature of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997. That treaty laid the groundwork for the eventual elimination of landmines, and ten years on from its entry into force, on 1 March 1999, it has made a huge difference in the lives of millions of people worldwide. The use of antipersonnel landmines has been drastically reduced; vast tracts of land have been cleared from mines and can now be used safely by local communities; the number of new victims has been constantly decreasing also thanks to mine risk education programs; and more than 41 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed worldwide, meaning that they will never claim an innocent life again. The undoubted success of the treaty has created in many people, especially in the western world, the mistaken impression that the problem is now solved. However, we know that this is not the case. Until all countries join this treaty and renounce the use of these weapons forever, and until we make sure that all countries obey the treaty’s obligations, that all mines are taken out of the ground, and that all survivors receive the necessary support to lead fulfilling lives, our work is not finished.
*How many countries are nowadays the most threatened by mines? How many people have lost their lives because of them?*
Landmines still affect people in some 76 countries and areas. The level of contamination varies from one country to another, but in the vast majority of cases this contamination means land denied for agriculture, displaced people unable to reintegrate their villages after a conflict, and men, women and children living with the daily fear of stepping on a landmine when carrying out the most basic activities such as fetching wood or working the land. Many of these mine-affected states are parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and have made a commitment to clearing all their mined areas.
We do not know how many innocent people have lost their lives to landmines, because many, many of the victims go unreported, but what we know is that the number amounts in the hundreds of thousands. Landmine Monitor, the monitoring body of the ICBL, has recorded half a million survivors of landmine explosions, and that number that grows each year as landmines claim new casualties every day.
*The world cannot better honor a person than with the Nobel Peace Prize. What did you feel obliged to do at that moment?*
Receiving the Nobel Prize is not something we ever thought about in the ICBL. We started this campaign to get rid of a weapon that continues to kill people long after the wars are over. The real prize for us is the Mine Ban Treaty, which provides the world a framework to eliminate this indiscriminate killer.
I very firmly believe that what is important is not the title one might bear, but the work one does to make the planet a better place for us all. With my receipt of the Nobel Prize, along with the ICBL, I became much more “the face” of the landmine movement than I ever had been before. Being by nature an introvert and very much happy and comfortable with helping move along the landmine work as but one of many of the ICBL’s leaders, the abrupt shift into the public eye was quite difficult to adjust to on a personal level. As time passed and as I travelled the world, I became a bit more comfortable with that public role. I understood and accepted the importance of being a positive model for peaceful change, particularly for young women everywhere. At the same time, in some ways I feel the weight of responsibility as a Nobel Prize recipient more with each passing year, particularly as our world is going through a period of especially dramatic change and turmoil.
*Is there anything that we can do here in Poland for the initiative of banning the antipersonnel mines?*
Certainly! Poland still needs to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty and to finally get rid of close to a million antipersonnel mines it still keeps in its stocks. This is something the ICBL together wth the Polish Red Cross have been urging Poland to do for more than 10 years – since it signed the treaty back in 1997, with some other 121 nations. To our regret and surprise Poland has not fulfilled its political commitment until today and still reserves the right to use this indiscriminate weapon which had been already renounced basically by the rest of the world.
Now and then we hear the Polish authorities proposing a new date when Poland would be ready to join the convention, always giving unclear reasons why not now. This is a shame for a country that has experienced the horror of landmines on its own land and people in the past: as a result of the World War II, 80% of its territory was contaminated causing death and injury to more than thirteen thousands civilians until today!
What we need in Poland is a strong voice of the civil society, voice of the Polish people requesting their government to finally ban this weapon, destroy its stocks, and help fighting this problem worldwide.
**Kaja Cudak’s Interview**