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Remarks Type: Remarks as Prepared
Speaker: Donald Steinberg, World Learning CEO
Speech Date: October 12, 2015
Speech Location: Washington, DC
It is a great privilege to speak at this launch of the book, Stepping into a Minefield by Ian Mansfield, at the Embassy of Switzerland today.
We use the word “hero” too loosely these days. Throw a touchdown in the last two minutes of a football game, and you’re a hero. Destroy enough zombies in a video game and a message pops up on the screen – “Good going, hero!” We’ve abused the word so badly that it’s not enough to say someone is a hero anymore – you have to say he or she is a super-hero.
Reading Ian Mansfield book, “Stepping into a Minefield,” reminds us what a real hero is. Heroes are ordinary people who take on extraordinary challenges that impact our world, using their full talents with little regard for self-advancement, recognition, and even personal safety.
Early in the book, we learn that on his first trip into Afghanistan, even before he had stepped into his first minefield, Ian’s caravan had to take cover from an aerial bombing of a MiG fighter jet from the Afghan Government, the very government he was there to assist. Soon thereafter, he raced to the site of a landmine accident, where anti-tank mines ended the lives of three of his courageous colleagues. A lesser person would have would have called it quits right then.
Stepping in a Minefield tells us about Ian’s life journey from the small mining town of Ararat in southeast Australia to the minefields in Afghanistan, Laos and Bosnia, and finally to the corridors of power in New York and Geneva.
I don’t believe it’s stretching the metaphor too far to remind you that Ararat in Turkey was the spot where, according to Judeo-Christian belief, Noah’s Ark landed to begin a new era of hope and peace following destruction. Similarly, Ian’s work for a quarter of a century has been to help people recover after devastating conflict and rebuild lives of hope and peace.
Long before the movement to ban landmines reach its apex with the Ottawa Treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, Ian reminds us, heroes like Rae McGrath, Bob Eaton, Martin Barber, J.J. van der Merwe, and Sayeed Aqa were literally toiling in the fields to address the horror of landmines. We also hear of the tremendous sacrifices of Ian’s courageous wife, Margaret, and his children, Zoe and Charles.
Landmines are cowardly weapons. They are designed to kill and maim indiscriminately, not distinguishing between enemy combatants and young children. They don’t demand that the perpetrators of violence witness the death and destruction they inflict. As Ian points out,
“One of the perverse aspects of anti-personnel landmines is that they are generally designed to maim rather than kill. In a battlefield situation, a soldier who steps on a mine will be screaming in agony, which strikes fear and caution in his comrades and requires a medic to treat the wounded person and then a number of stretcher bearers to evacuate the soldier.”
My first direct experience with landmines came in 1994. I had been asked by President Clinton to serve as Ambassador to Angola, a country emerging from 25 years of civil war that had cost a half million lives, driven three million people from their homes, and reportedly left a legacy of a million landmines planted in the soil.
Before taking the position, I travelled to Angola to witness the situation, which mirrored the tragic environment Ian faced at the same time in Afghanistan. I will always remember walking into a makeshift hospital near a refugee camp in rural Angola, going around a corner, and seeing a woman on an operating table who was giving birth and having her leg amputated at the same time.
As I quickly withdrew, I asked our guide what had happened. She said that the pregnant woman had been living in the refugee camp and knew that the gruel she was being fed wasn’t providing enough nourishment for her unborn child. So even though she had been told that the nearby fields were mined, she went into a mango grove to pick some fruit, and stepped on a landmine. The accident stimulated premature labor. As we walked away from the hospital, the guide said that it was unlikely that either she or the baby would survive.
That experience started me on my own anti-landmine journey, both for four years in Angola and for three years thereafter as the President’s Special Representative for Global Humanitarian Demining. And it led me to the honor of working with Ian Mansfield. Throughout my experience with him, Ian was always one step ahead of the rest of us – looking for innovative and groundbreaking methods to, as he puts it, not only do the job right, but do the right job.
This led to greater landmine surveys to prioritize demining efforts, expanded use of dog mine detection, new mine awareness programs, and projects to engage the public in demining like the Adopt-a-Minefield program. I’m proud to say that I myself adopted a minefield in Mozambique on behalf of my parents in 1999, and when the field was cleared, 10,000 local residents could return to their village and begin their new lives. It is fitting, then, that just last month, two decades after the end of Mozambique’s civil war, the government of Mozambique and the international community declared the country to be “mine-free.”
Ian’s book reminds us that the landmine story is one of hope and revival. Midway through the book, he describes an experience he had in Kandahar two decades ago. He writes: “An old man came up to us holding a bunch of flowers. He asked to speak to me through the interpreter he said that he was extremely grateful that we had cleared his farming land. He said that he could now die in peace, knowing that his family had a future. He gave me the bunch of flowers which he had grown on his land, and then got down on his knees and kissed my hand.”
It is also befitting of Ian’s modesty that he mentions this story long before we learn that he was awarded Australia’s highest civilian honor – Member of the Order of Australia – in 2010 for his service to international humanitarian aid through the establishment of global landmine removal, safety and training programs.
Is our work done in the fight against landmines? Hardly. For one thing, nearly two decades after its entry into force, the United States and a number of other world powers have yet to accede to the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines.
Incidentally, I’m very proud that one of the leaders of the fight against landmines, Jody Williams, attended World Learning’s master’s program, learning skills she later applied in the building support for the campaign to ban landmines.
I know all the arguments American officials use against the Ottawa Treaty. I know about self-destructing landmines and anti-handling devices and the defense of South Korea, but I also know the importance of being on the right side of history. So I have one request. President Obama, before you leave office 16 months from now, sign the treaty.
One final thought. Stepping into a Minefield shows the impact that a single good and talented person, working in partnership with others, can have in addressing huge global challenges. I am reminded of my favorite quote, from Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in apartheid South Africa forty years ago. Kennedy said:
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
If we are all ripples of hope, it is my honor to now introduce a tsunami in the fight against landmines, Ian Mansfield. Thank you.