Ten million tragedies, one step at a time

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Author: Jim Wurst
Date: July-August 1993
From: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(Vol. 49, Issue 6)
Publisher: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 2,859 words

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Land mines left in the ground long after a war is finished often are set off by local residents, who then are wounded or killed. The countries that planted the land mines should be responsible for removing them, but few are ever removed or marked. Manufacture and trade should be greatly regulated.

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Like debris left on the beach by the receding tide, tens of millions of land mines lie in wait from El Salvador to Kuwait, Angola to Cambodia. As the Cold War and its proxy hot wars recede into history, these small, cheap weapons remain--the squat, ominous reminders of the recklessness of modern warfare.

There is something in the simplicity of a land mine that emphasizes the cruelty of war. Far more civilians than soldiers are victims; those who lay the mines rarely see the results of their handiwork. Anyone can buy these eternal sentries and indiscriminately toss them into peoples' farms, fields, and villages; they cost as little as $7 a piece. Garth Whitty, a British Army lieutenant colonel attached to the United Nations, has suggested that the particular horror of mines is that "they are so impersonal; they just sit there and wait."

Lacking the drama of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles or even handguns, land mines have generally escaped professional and public attention. But now, as land mines begin to be perceived as obstacles to post-war peacebuilding, some humanitarian groups and a few governments are preparing to fight the production and distribution of these weapons. Last year, a coalition of humanitarian groups including Human Rights Watch, Handicap International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation (VVAF) launched an international campaign to ban the production and sale of mines; the United Nations began exploring its options, and some governments called for strengthening an existing convention that was designed to control mines.

Land mines are not new. World War II-vintage mines are still found in Europe and North Africa, and some are still potent. The United States dropped tens of millions of mines and other munitions throughout Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) during the Vietnam War; after the Suez Canal was restored to Egypt early in 1974, Egyptian and international teams cleared more than 700,000 mines from land around the canal. Estimates of Soviet mines dropped in Afghanistan range as high as 10 million. What is new is the way that mines are used.

Whitty points out that the use of land mines has changed since irregular forces adopted the weapon in recent decades. "The traditional function of mines was to force people to take particular routes," thus forcing then "into a killing area," he says. Mine fields were marked because it was assumed the land would be retaken. But the use of mines by irregular forces in civil and ethnic conflicts, such as those in Cambodia and Angola, have nullified these assumptions.

Eric Stover, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights in Washington, D.C., calls anti-personnel mines "the weapons of choice" for irregular forces. "The mines are so small, a soldier can carry one around his neck and drop it as he is retreating." Caught in their respective quagmires, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the superpowers added to the land mine mess by indiscriminately spreading mines throughout those countries.

There are two basic types of land mines: anti-personnel and anti-vehicle. (See "The Land Mine Family," this page.) Because it is easier to blow up a person than a tank or truck, anti-personnel mines are smaller and harder to detect than anti-vehicle mines. Another reason for their diminutive size (they usually contain just a few grams of explosives) is that they are meant to maim rather than to kill their victims--a unique characteristic in the field of munitions. A soldier with his feet blown off is a much greater burden to himself and his comrades than is a corpse.

Mines that maim include so-called "bounding mines," which have two charges connected by a wire. The first, smaller charge propels the bulk of the mine upward for a meter or so before it explodes. It is designed to do maximum damage to the genitals. Although this might make cold-blooded sense in military terms, the majority of land mine victims are civilians. After a war ends, the soldiers leave the field to civilians who try to rebuild their lives, only to find mines where they must plant crops.

The United Nations estimates that most of the one million land mine victims in Afghanistan are children. This is because the Soviets scattered the "butterfly," a type of mine that looks more like a toy than a bomb. The effect was unintended; the butterfly's "wings" (something like the wings of a maple seed) were designed to break the mine's fall as it fell from a plane.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that in Cambodia, 1,200 people were wounded by land mines in 1991 alone, and that there are probably 30,000 amputees in the country because of these weapons. Human Rights Watch puts the figure at 55,000. Regardless of the actual figure, these numbers would make Cambodia, per capita, the amputee capital of the world. For years, this dubious title belonged to Angola, where the ICRC estimates there are 20,000 amputees. The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) estimates that in Afghanistan, land mines were responsible for a fifth of the one million deaths during the conflict there. The ICRC treats an average of 250 wounded Kurds a month in northern Iraq, but the organization does not distinguish between those wounded by mines from those wounded by other explosives.

No one, not the United Nations nor the international human rights organizations, has made a comprehensive estimate of the number of people injured by land mines. Stover says that of the handful of articles on the medical consequences of mines, most were written from a military perspective and deal only with soldiers. Collecting data on civilians is in the early stages, and it is a piecemeal operation. For example, the ICRC compiles data on mine victims, but only those it treats. And it is difficult to distinguish between land mine injuries and those caused by weapons such as unexploded cluster bombs or booby traps. Use of multiple-explosive weapons such as cluster bombs increase the odds of leaving leftovers behind--hard-to-detect duds that wait for the stray hoe or foot.

None of the experts interviewed for this article would even hazard a guess about the size of the market for land mines. However, a new report by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights suggests that there could be as many as two hundred million land mines deployed and stockpiled. Rae McGrath, the director of the Mines Advisory Group in Britain, a private humanitarian organization, says the number of mines manufactured and exported and the money involved is not made public, and even if governments and companies did publish figures, "They would be--to put it kindly--incorrect." To give a sense of the market's size, he cited an Italian court case that revealed that one company, Valsella Meccanotecnica of Brescia, had shipped nine million land mines to Iraq in three years.

"That's just one case," he points out. He adds that generally, major arms deals are "topped off with anti-personnel mines." Generous arms merchants throw in 10,000 or so mines like extra nuts on an ice cream sundae.

The 1981 Convention on Inhuman Weapons and its Protocol II is supposed to be the cornerstone of international control over such weapons, including land mines. (Its official name is "The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects.") Under the Inhuman Weapons Convention, indiscriminate placement of mines is prohibited, "all feasible precautions shall be taken to protect civilians," plastic mines should have metal rings so they can be detected, the injuring fragments must be X-ray detectable, and mine fields should be marked and maps kept so that the mines can be retrieved.

Such legal and moral niceties are regularly ignored. In one of its publications, Military Vehicles and Ground Support Equipment, the international weapons authority Jane's, describes a mine being developed by the U.S. Army that "is intended for use by special forces who will require a small mine that can be laid rapidly in the path of pursuing enemy forces." There is no reference at all to the weapons convention's requirement that locations "be accurately recorded." Jane's isn't the only organization that may be unfamiliar with the convention. Stover said that during a tour of mine-infested Cambodia in 1991, only Red Cross officials had heard of Protocol II.

Considering the threat that mines pose, it is remarkable that there has been no international attempt to control them more strictly. Their manufacture and trade is not covered by any arms control regime. When the United Nations established an arms register in 1991, land mines were not one of the categories of weapons listed. The register is limited to major weapons systems covered by the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. But spurred by the new, higher visibility of the problem, private groups such as Human Rights Watch, Handicap International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the VVAF are beginning to monitor the land mine business and to lobby for a ban on their production and trade. (See "Exposing the Land Mine Business," page 19.)

The United Nations has information on mine placement, clearance, and injuries in areas where its peacekeeping missions operate, such as Kuwait and Cambodia, but there has been no worldwide systematic collection of information. However, the U.N. Working Group on Mines and Munitions Clearance, an ad hoc group involving the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Humanitarian Affairs, and the private groups are "starting to prepare a strategy for de-mining, to help peacekeeping operations," according to Alexander Borg-Olivier, a U.N. official with the working group. Noting that mines "slow down reconciliation and recovery," Borg-Olivier says that creating a database covering de-mining techniques and de-mining experts, mine technology, and information about production is a priority. (The United Nations, however, is not involved in activist efforts to ban land mines.)

Responding to a request by the U.N. Environment Program, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recommended ways the United Nations could deal with this issue. SIPRI suggested a register of information on mines and other explosive "remnants of war," including location, magnitude, and destructive capacities of mines and other munitions, and said there was an "urgent need" to create a database on mine clearing technologies. The report--commissioned in 1985--is now eight years old.

With all factions in numerous wars clamoring for U.N. peacekeepers, post-war rebuilding increasingly involves the United Nations. The U.N. missions to Mozambique and Somalia have emphasized mine clearance. But Cambodia is by far the most complex operation the United Nations is engaged in, and the recent end of the fighting there has focused new international attention on land mines.

The VVAF estimates that there may be as many as four million land mines scattered around Cambodia, but there is no way of knowing, since none of the four warring factions has told the United Nations how many it laid. The factions probably don't know themselves. The Paris peace agreements that ended the war and spelled out the U.N.'s role in rebuilding the country call for the United Nations to assist in clearing mines. And they require "that all known minefields are clearly marked." But no one knows where those fields are, or--appallingly--perhaps the entire country should be considered a mine field.

Mine clearance is the first priority in Cambodia. Even before the Security Council approved the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in March 1992, an advance peacekeeping team went to the country to cleanse primary resettlement areas, Phnom Penh, and the roads on which the refugees would return from Thailand. Alan Beaver, a New Zealand army colonel in charge of Cambodian mine clearing, told a U.N. publication: "The four armed factions are being asked to mark all their minefields with ... simple signs and fences. We've asked them to at least take that step." (The Inhuman Weapons Convention requires all former combatants to tell the United Nations where such weapons are located.)

The Paris peace agreements say the United Nations will assist in mine clearance. In May 1992, the head of UNTAC, Yasushi Akashi, announced the formation of the Mine Clearance Training Unit, a group that includes specialists from eight countries who train Cambodians (usually demobilized soldiers of the various factions) in the craft. As of January 1993, UNTAC had trained 1,640 Cambodians as mine-clearers. UNTAC also said that more than one million square meters of land had been cleared of nearly 6,800 mines (small progress, considering the millions left). According to Akashi, more elaborate systems, such as cannon-fired frails--swinging chains that beat the ground--that were used to clear mine fields in Kuwait "would not be useful," given the terrain, the lack of people to run the equipment, and the paucity of replacement parts for the machines. (See "Clearing Mines," page 20.)

Mine clearance is not an exclusively humanitarian operation. Business will get involved if there is profit to be made in countries such as Kuwait, but they have little interest in no-win, no-profit locales such as Afghanistan.

McGrath of the Mines Advisory Group believes anti-personnel mines should be banned, but he is pessimistic that it will happen. "There's too much money, too many political points involved," he says. "There are only two ways this kind of thing gets stopped. You must make public what is known about these companies and threaten the votes of politicians." The problem, he said, is that "the people in the West that have the power do not give a damn."

Stover is no optimist either, but he does see the use of the ban-mines campaigns. "You will never ban land mines, but the point is that if land mines are banned--even on paper--then you can go after the manufacturers," he argues. But he also believes companies would get around bans by exporting parts that can be assembled in the receiving country, the same way U.S. bans on certain automatic weapons imports are circumvented.

Making mines is surely an equal-opportunity business. The VVAF estimates that about 44 countries make them, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Israel, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Vietnam, North and South Korea, most European nations--and all permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council. The foundation believes at least 15 U.S.-based companies produce mines or components; the anti-mine campaign is just starting to pressure the companies to stop. According to Jody Williams, coordinator of the VVAF land mines campaign, U.S. companies include Acudyne-Astra, Aerojet Ordnance Co., Day & Zimmerman, Explosives Corporation of America, Lockheed, Mason-Hanger, Thiokol, Motorola, Olin, and Texas Instruments.

Only 35 countries have ratified the Inhuman Weapons Convention, and the United States is not one of them. The convention was signed by President Reagan in 1982 but never ratified by the Senate because of infighting within the Reagan and Bush administrations over some of its protocols. And then it was snarled in politicking between Congress and the White House over other conventions (including the Genocide Convention).

However, in October 1992 a one-year moratorium on the trade in anti-personnel mines became law. The bill was sponsored by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Illinois Cong. Lane Evans, both Democrats, who are examining strategies to take the moratorium further. There will be a number of strategy sessions in the United States and Europe during 1993, culminating in an international conference in December that will, its advocates hope, launch the campaign for a permanent ban on land mines.

Other governments are also acting. Switzerland is sponsoring a conference in July on ways to apply humanitarian laws to monitor the use of anti-personnel mines. Last fall, France asked U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to hold a review conference of the Inhuman Weapons Convention (the United Nations is the depository of the convention) to strengthen the regime. Michel Miraillet of the French mission to the United Nations said there were three issues that should be dealt with: Protocol II covers only interstate, not internal, conflicts; civilians are not protected; and there are no verification or sanctions provisions. He said the review conference could be held by January or February 1994.

The eight-year-old SIPRI report suggested that Protocol II should be strengthened. Mines could be fitted with devices to automatically render them harmless after a set time; belligerents could be required to keep specific records of mine fields; and belligerents could provide information on clearing techniques and on abandoned munitions caches.

If the horrific effects of land mines do begin to penetrate the public mind, these weapons may become symbols of the cruelty and chaos of the post-Cold War world just as the superpowers' nuclear arsenals symbolized the Cold War. Instead of the high-tech tools of massive death in the hands of the planet's elite, the land mine is available to all, and it is user-friendly. And, as always, the victims are the poor and helpless, picked off by these eternal sentries, one by one, limb by limb.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A14070596