On 6 December 2013 at the United Nations in Geneva, delegates attending a preparatory meeting for the Mine Ban Treaty’s 3rd Review Conference stood in silence at Mozambique’s request to mark Nelson Mandela’s death the night before. Many nations described Mandela’s contributions to freedom and democracy, while South Africa acknowledged the condolences received and said “we shared him with the world.” Less discussed, but also of significance is Mandela’s support for the ban on antipersonnel landmines, which was as much practical as it was inspirational.

Back in 1997, Mandela and his widow Graça Machel played important roles largely behind the scenes in helping to create the Mine Ban Treaty. We continue to honour their legacy and Mandela’s spirit in our activism supporting the Mine Ban Treaty’s full implementation and universalization.

As president of South Africa, Mandela oversaw the government’s change in position announced 20 February 1997 to support a comprehensive ban on antipersonnel landmines. That announcement came just days before the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) held its 4th international NGO conference in Mozambique.

Graça Machel’s Foundation for Community Development hosted the ICBL and its then-coordinator Liz Bernstein in the months leading up to the February 1997 NGO meeting in Maputo. Machel was a strong proponent for a ban on antipersonnel landmines and as the UN Secretary-General’s Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children worked with Jody Williams on a November 1996 report that documented the “insidious and persistent danger” the weapons pose to children affected by armed conflict.

In March 1997, Mandela thanked Princess Diana for drawing attention to the plight of Angola’s victims of landmines, indicating that her efforts had helped spur South Africa’s decision to give up landmines.

South Africa hosted a key conference at Kempton Park in May 1997 that helped establish Africa-wide support for the goal of a total ban on antipersonnel mines. In September 1997, President Mandela chaired a Summit of Heads of State and Government from the Southern African Development Community, which adopted a declaration aimed at making Southern Africa a region free of antipersonnel mines.

That same month South Africa’s then-ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Jacob Selebi, skilfully chaired the Oslo negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty on 18 September. During the negotiations Nelson Mandela was lobbied by US President Bill Clinton, including via late-night phone calls, to support measures that would have severely weakened the draft Mine Ban Treaty text. Mandela resisted and instructed Selebi to stay strong in the face of tremendous pressure.

In December 1997, Mandela dispatched South Africa’s then-Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to sign the Mine Ban Treaty in Ottawa. Under Mandela’s presidency, South Africa ratified the Mine Ban Treaty on 26 June 1998, the 21 nation to do so and fifth from Africa.

Prior adopting the Mine Ban Treaty, South Africa–a former landmine producer and user–destroyed its considerable stockpile of more than 300,000 antipersonnel landmines. A significant number were destroyed in one go on 21 May 1997 in what’s believed to be the first landmine stockpile destruction event to include media and NGO participation.

In its acceptance speech for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, the ICBL said it was “proud but humbled” to share the award with 1993 Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela and other laureates who have given so much in the service of peace.

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Photo: Graca Machel and South African President Nelson Mandela at a function in the Soweto area of Johannesburg (c) Henner Frankenfeld, Associated Press, 20 February 1997