"Scruffy chaps with earrings, wearing boots with their suits" are not often taken seriously, least of all by government officials. But this one -- 1997's Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate Rae McGrath -- was largely instrumental for pressuring governments to stop using landmines.
McGrath describes himself as an ordinary person effecting significant change. But, he noted in a lecture in Goldwin Smith Hall March 12, it is now cluster bombs, not landmines, that are killing civilians indiscriminately.
If a cluster bomb were dropped on the Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health (formerly known as the Federal Nutrition Laboratory) on Cornell's campus, for example, it would leave cluster munitions strewn from the Arts Quad to the Vet School, McGrath noted.
Speaking about civil society's role in prohibiting indiscriminate weapons, McGrath said that cluster ordnance can be dropped from planes or delivered by artillery shells or missiles and that they often fail to explode upon impact, posing the same threat to civilians as landmines. In fact, landmines have been used less and less since the Mines Advisory Group and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which McGrath founded, successfully pressured many governments to ban them. But cluster munitions can be worse, McGrath said, because they are usually fired with little precision, spreading ordnance over a wide area.
"With cluster bombs, you don't take out one building, you take out many" people at random, he said.
McGrath said that it is the duty of "civil society" to force governments to end the use of cluster munitions as well. The term, he said, refers to all of the citizens of a democracy, politically engaged or not, who bear the privilege and responsibility of influencing their government's policy.
"You are civil society. You're doing this with us," he told the audience, adding that "tree-huggers and left-wing types who go out and campaign" are not the only ones responsible for producing change.
Thanks to the efforts of McGrath and campaigns to ban landmines, a number of nations signed an agreement to ban landmines in 1997. Even governments that didn't sign the treaty, including the United States, largely abandoned the weapons, McGrath said, because munitions manufacturers for the most part have stopped producing them.
Although landmine casualties in 2006 were almost 6,000, that number was 16 percent less than in 2005. Mine survivors globally total at least 473,000, many needing lifelong care, according to a report by Landmine Monitor.
McGrath stressed that militaries also continue to employ cluster munitions, which means that the job of civil societies to get governments to terminate their use is not yet done.
McGrath, an engineer, currently works for the Handicap International Network as a spokesman, with major responsibility for coordinating input toward the Oslo Process, a set of accords between the Israelis and Palestinians. Handicap International is a founding member of the Cluster Munition Coalition, which is an international civil society coalition of more than 250 non-governmental organizations.
Chris Tozzi '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.