‘If international law is the foundation, then men like Ambassador Toscano are building the edifice’

Stefano Toscano, a longtime Swiss diplomat who now directs the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, spoke at Northeastern Thursday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Long after wars end, former battlegrounds can pose a lethal threat for decades because of landmines and other leftover explosives. Stefano Toscano is tasked with making safe the places where wars have been fought.

Toscano, a longtime Swiss diplomat, now directs the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, which works to removes leftover explosives after conflicts end in about 50 countries worldwide.

The organization’s goal is to restore formerly war torn land so it can be used again for new construction or agriculture.

“At one point, half of the world was contaminated by landmines and now close to 30 countries have been declared mine free,” Toscano told students, faculty, and alumni who attended the “Peace and Human Security: The Role of Geneva” conference Thursday at Northeastern.

Toscano said that the increasing number of conflicts taking place in urban areas has made removing explosives more difficult, because mines are placed in buildings as opposed to in an open field. 

The problem of leftover landmines is an acute example of the challenges faced by international mediators and policymakers at a time when the world seems to be moving away from global consensus rather than toward it.

Students asked Toscano questions about how international agreements can be put into practice without cooperation from large nations. Some made reference to the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

“We are in a political environment that is not necessarily conducive to coming to global agreements,” said Toscano. “But that’s why we now have to channel our energy to safeguard the agreements of the past. Smaller states as a group can put pressure on larger ones.”

Toscano added that some of the responsibility for making the world a safer place lies with the individual, and not just governments. He said that silence in the face of human rights violations can be taken as approval, so it is important for the international community to react when they occur.

That sentiment was echoed by Denise Garcia, a Nobel Peace Institute Fellow and an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, who moderated the event.

“If international law is the foundation, then men like Ambassador Toscano are building the edifice,” Garcia said. “It also depends on people like us as well. We need everyone of us to make that edifice stronger.”

Many of the students at the event were no strangers to discussions on international policy, as they had joined Garcia on her Dialogue of Civilizations trip to the United Nations in Geneva to learn about diplomacy and disarmament.

“I have many interactions with students in Geneva, but Northeastern students are always special,” said Toscano. “You are very engaged and always ready to raise a question and it’s impressive.”