Yesterday, NCBL celebrated its 18th birthday. As I sit here, in day two of Operation Food Poisoning, it seems as good a time as any to gush about this amazing organization that I have the privilege to work with for 5 months.
Development is a dirty business like any other. Of course, there are heroes; but if you peel back the layers of fancy words and high-res pictures of smiling children, it can be tough to find even a handful of organizations that are having a tangible, let alone sustainable, impact on the ground. Pick your poison: power, corruption, poor planning, good-intentions-gone-wrong. Or blame the obvious, but sorely overlooked fact that development is a contested and damn right difficult thing to “do”. I often picture development as an ecosystem, made up of social, cultural, economic and political webs that are more complex and interdependent than we could ever imagine or begin to understand. Playing god in this environment is risky business. It means a cascade of unintended consequences. And the bottom line is not profits – it’s people’s lives, which are made better or worse.
Disenchanted development rants aside, I have been incredibly impressed by the accomplishments and action-oriented approach at NCBL and in the broader mine action community. There is something powerful in uniting for a common, singular purpose: to rid the world of inhumane weapons. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a Canadian-led initiative of which NCBL is a proud member, stands as an unprecedented example of what can be accomplished with cooperation, leadership and a dose of common humanity. In 1997, with the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) in Ottawa, the world took a stand against the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of landmines. This piece of history now has 161 signatories and counting. That’s a whopping 84% of the whole wide world.
Unfortunately, Nepal is of the remaining minority of countries that have yet to sign this life-saving treaty. As fate would have it, NCBL was founded just one year before the outbreak of a decade-long civil war in Nepal (1996-2006) that killed more than 15,000 people and ripped 10x as many from their homes. Despite relentless advocacy efforts with government officials, the Nepal Army began using landmines against Maoist forces in 2002. To this day, the Nepal government claims it only used landmines for defensive purposes around key military sites – but even on the defensive, a landmine cannot distinguish between a soldier and a civilian, a tank and a school bus, time of war and time of peace.
Over 10 years of conflict, and in the years since, landmines have claimed at least 860 victims in Nepal (Landmine Monitor). Other estimates place the number killed and maimed closer to 1,500 (IRIN). Of these victims, over 60% are children, who often mistake explosives for toys. Many others are farmers who go out in the fields, trying to rebuilt their lives after conflict, only to leave their families burdened by the loss of a breadwinner or the high cost of medical fees. During a recent interview, a female survivor described how she was shunned in the community after her accident, due to the belief that disability is caused by past sin. These intersectional forms of discrimination have a compounding effect that keep victims poor, alone, and living a life without dignity.
Survivors with disabilities are not charity cases. They do not need pity or a well-meaning handout. They deserve acceptance, respect, and the opportunity to live a sustainable life in the way of their choosing. Upholding rights to medical services, equipment and rehabilitation is a means, a first step, but not an end in itself. Part of NCBL’s core work involves livelihood programs, which range from goat rearing to computer skills development. These programs help survivors regain a sense of independence, purpose and dignity for themselves and their families. NCBL also supports children affected by conflict through an education scholarship program. Most importantly, NCBL recognizes survivors not only as victims, but also as leaders who have a voice and deserve to be heard. With this wisdom, NCBL sends survivors to national and international conferences on landmine issues: “Nothing about us, without us.”
In fact, it was due to the united advocacy efforts of survivors that the Nepal government admitted to using landmines after active denial to diplomats and international organizations. NCBL also brought survivors to the table throughout peace negotiations and won an important victory in 2006 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict and included explicit clauses to ban landmines in Nepal. The government made good on its promises to map, fence and post signage around affected areas. Finally, on June 14, 2011, Nepal was officially declared landmine-field free after clearing 53 landmine fields and 341 fields of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
But reports this past Thursday on the discovery of 70 socket bombs in Rolpa district are a timely reminder that the fight against explosive remnants of war is far from over. Although landmines have been cleared, IEDs, or home made bombs, still pose a dangerous threat in the country. Unstable government and lack of political will have also road blocked the effective implementation of national victim assistance. A Mine Action Joint Working Group (MAJWG) was established but remains inactive and a National Victim Assistance Strategic Framework developed but not implemented. Victim assistance programs that do exist are insufficient to meet even the basic needs of survivors. And it is common knowledge that the government-issued colour cards for persons with disabilities are riddled with corruption and inequality.
These are the challenges that keep NCBL in the fight for survivors in Nepal after 18 long years. The dedication of NCBL’s founder, a dynamic woman and my boss, is incredible. She has told me a couple times that “I work very hard” – no small compliment from a woman who regularly spends evenings and weekends working for the cause. I was honoured, on Friday, when I congratulated NCBL staff on “their 18th birthday” and was quickly corrected with: “you mean our 18th birthday.” Thanks, NCBL, and many more to come!
For more info on NCBL, check out our June 2013 newsletter.