A Chair Can Be a Powerful Symbol

by D-L Nelson
- France -

Geneva, Switzerland – “The chair is back,” Geneva residents are saying to each other. They are referring to a 12-meter (39-foot) wooden chair that stands between spouting fountains at the recently renovated Place des Nations, which leads to the UN European Headquarters. For two years the chair had been in storage while the Place was turned from a muddy field into a decorative plaza.

The simple brown wooden chair would look good at any dining room table if it were of normal size and if it had four instead of three and a quarter legs. The fourth leg is broken off, leaving shards of jagged wood, yet the chair does not tip.

Entitled The Broken Chair, it was sculpted by Swiss artist, Daniel Berset. Originally erected on August 18, 1997, it was the brainchild of Paul Vermeulen, director of the non-governmental organization, Handicap International, in Geneva. He wanted a strong symbol of the fight against anti-personnel land mines as the world was joining together to sign the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer or Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction—or as it is more simply known, The Ottawa Convention or the Mine Ban Treaty. The lost leg symbolizes what so many land mine victims suffer. And they are the lucky ones. The others have lost their lives.

The statistics for deaths and injuries by unexploded land mines are staggering. Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia have suffered 85% of the world’s land mine casualties. It is estimated there are some 37 million mines hidden in 19 African countries just waiting for someone to step on them or unearth them with a plough. In Angola alone, there are 70,000 victims. Eight thousand are children. Each year between 15,000 and 20,000 new land mine causalities occur, according to one UN estimate from Landmine Monitor.

Vermeulen knows the statistics, but statistics are just numbers on paper. Before going to Handicap International, he worked with Medicines Sans Frontier, where he learned that statistics have faces, each representing a personal and family tragedy. His goal was to devise a new way to present the situation without using the traditional pictures of wounded children. With so much violence in today’s world, immunity to the horror of wars and their aftermath has developed. Vermeulen did not want a stone statue because human bodies are not hard or eternal like stone. He felt that wood was organic as is human flesh and bone, and thus vulnerable. Yet the chair, like so many land mine victims, stands firmly, almost defiantly against its handicap.

The Swiss authorities agreed to have the chair placed in front of the UN as a daily reminder to the delegates and high level visitors going in and out of the building of the damage land mines exact and to encourage them to urge their governments to take action.

Originally the chair was to be on site only three months, until all countries had signed the Ottawa Convention. Although 122 countries did sign, others did not, so the chair, instead of being removed in December 2005, stayed overlooking different peace demonstrations that were regularly held in the area, not just for land mines, but for oppressed and endangered people all over the world. When Princess Diana, a land mine treaty advocate, was killed, flowers were tied to the three legs as a tribute to her work. When it was disassembled in 2005, to allow for the reconstruction in the area, it was stored in the Canton of Geneva until work was completed by local authorities.
In the two years the chair was in storage, 30 more countries signed the Ottawa Convention. Forty-two have not, including the US. For a complete list on who has and hasn’t signed it, see www.icbl.org/treaty/.

While the world waits for all countries to come on board, the chair is back in its place—but with a new purpose.
In February 2007 Norway took the initiative and held a conference on another problem—cluster bombs which, like land mines, can kill and maim decades after a war ends. The US has used them in Iraq and Israel used them in Lebanon last summer. According to Vermeulen, 98% of the victims are civilians and of those, 27% are children.
At the Norwegian meeting, Handicap International rededicated the chair not just to the damage done by land mines, but as a reminder of the problem of cluster bombs.

Two more conferences on the subject are planned this year, in Montreux, Switzerland and in Lima, Peru.
Some countries are already on board: Belgium, Norway and Austria. An initiative is before the Swiss government in Bern to ban all cluster bombs, Vermeulen said. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition in a March 21st, 2007 press release, the UK will no longer use two types of cluster munitions, which do not have self-destruct devices. However it will continue to use those that do.

When Vermeulen talks about the uphill battle to get nations to stop using military weapons that destroy lives, he says symbols like The Broken Chair remind people of the problem. He believes that to stop these weapons, it is necessary “to have support of civil societies because governments alone won’t do it.”
The longer it takes, the more innocent lives will be lost. For that reason alone, it would be wonderful if The Broken Chair could be taken down and forgotten.

About the Author
D-L Nelson
is a Swiss-American living in Europe. She is the author of two novels, Chickpea Lover: Not a Cookbook and The Card.

She is also editor and publisher of www.Cunewswire.com an electronic news service for Canadian credit unions.

Posted in Arts & Culture, FEATURE ARTICLES, Politics, The World
5 comments on “A Chair Can Be a Powerful Symbol
  1. Will Peters says:

    The poignant and profound simplicity of the broken chair points to the power of public art to remind us of the collateral damage to innocent victims that is linked to our unwillingness to use non-violent methods of conflict resolution and our other human failings.

  2. Elisa says:

    I too believe we have “to have support of civil societies because governments alone won’t do it.” But how? In too many countries elections have become shams and elected officials do not truly represent the people. People are jaded and cynical–too few vote and even fewer seem to appreciate art. How does Vermeulen propose the global civil society support a ban? We desperately need a “vision” and answers.

  3. D-L Nelson says:

    Elisa…
    The only way to change the world or part of it, is to change whatever you can and role model it for others. Whatever country you live in call your leaders, write letters, talk about it, organize groups, go to demonstrations, make your voice heard. I know no one person can work on all the problems the world is facing, but if you can get your voice heard on just one injustice, it is a start to solving that one.

  4. Elisa says:

    D-L Nelson…
    Yes, I agree, in a cohesive society the best way to bring about change is to be politically active, be a good role model, and let your voice be heard. Unfortunately, I feel my country—the USA— has changed so much in the last 25 years that the solutions you propose produce very little response. Our citizens are so busy being plugged in—to computers, cell phones, TV—noone pays much attention to what is going on around them. And our elected officials are so busy fundraising that one is lucky if a letter is answered by a “disconnected” staff member. Unless we “connect” the broader civil society, I don’t believe things will change.

  5. Jing says:

    “People’s Republic of China, India, Russia and the United States, are not party to the Convention.” My country where people die in the mine every year is not the party like the other 3 biggest countries in the world. And I don’t even know if enough information is disclosed to the public about mine accidents. I visited a disposed mine in France. Even the lucky ones survive, they will be severely damaged.

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