What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object? 

Such an experiment played out this week – not in a physics lab, but in the realm of disarmament diplomacy as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC) held its first meeting under the cloud of Covid-19. 

At least twice per year, the 164 countries who have joined the convention meet to review their work toward a world free of landmines. Countries with obligations to clear or destroy mines report on their progress, while others report on the funding or technical support they have given to demining. New trends in mine action are also discussed and endorsed.

Like other multilateral forums, the APMBC relies on precedent: what has been done in the past dictates the future. This prevents procedural disputes and helps delegates focus on substantive issues. But it also hinders innovation and inclusivity. The same conference rooms in the same countries are rented every year. Delegates (mostly older men in suits) fly in to participate while communities directly affected by landmines are largely stuck on the outside, unable to have their say.

Covid-19 has been a shock to that system. Due to travel restrictions, states were forced to move this year’s June-July meeting online for the first time. And apart from the occasional technical hiccup, it worked.

Gona Hassan from MAG Iraq speaks about her experience at the (digital) APMBC side session on gender

Beaming in from their respective capitals, officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Niger, South Sudan, and elsewhere presented updated plans for clearing landmines on their territory. They discussed critical issues of gender and diversity, with speakers calling in from across the world – including Gona Hassan, who challenged the patriarchy of her home country, Iraq, and rose to become a MAG community liaison supervisor. New advances in tackling improvised landmines were presented. And some sessions were even made accessible to the public via Zoom. The event was a credit to the convention’s staff and to the government of Sudan, which holds its rotating presidency. Their risk-taking and hard work paid off.

Having done it once, should this digital disarmament diplomacy become the new normal? Perhaps not. Negotiating thorny issues is still easier when states sit face-to-face, unmediated by technology. More importantly, if the mine action community cannot gather then its shared sense of purpose – and of urgency – may fade over time. Without that, states will struggle to achieve a Landmine Free 2025; and the 60 million people affected by mines will pay the price.

What we need, then, is to combine the best of both approaches. When the threat of Covid-19 abates, in-person disarmament diplomacy has to resume, but it must become more inclusive and accessible. There must be opportunities for more diverse voices to be heard – especially from mine-affected communities. MAG was proud to join nearly 150 civil society organizations in making such a call in a recent open letter.

We applaud all the states and organisations who participated in this month’s digital ’experiment.’ We hope they will seize this opportunity to reform and revitalise disarmament diplomacy.