Reaping what the military sows

There are 110 million land mines in the ground in 62 countries

By Shirley Farlinger | 1995-01-01 12:00:00

Farming in Cambodia can cost a life or a limb. The fertile soil is so laced with hidden land mines that one in every 236 Cambodians is an amputee. It is estimated that four and a half million mines are scattered throughout the country. Each year about 15,000 people are killed and 10,000 wounded in countries around the world. This lethal scourge could be eliminated if the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines succeeds.

The campaign has already met with some success. A moratorium on the production and export of land mines has been undertaken by Italy, a major producer, and by 29 other countries. The site of production in Italy, the town of Brescia, was the focus of a three-day demonstration, a 17 km walk, a fundraising concert, and seminars. The Italian government is also being asked to assist with de-mining.

Millions Every Year

The size of the problem of removing land mines around the world is staggering. It is estimated that there are 110 million land mines in the ground in 62 countries and 100 million more are stockpiled.

In 1993 about 100,000 were cleared, but two million more were laid dawn. Land mines look small and inoffensive. They come in many different types. One resembles a small fat white rubber tire; one a dark green plastic container. Contrary to media reports, none have been made to look like toys; yet one can understand the farmer's urge to pick up these innocuous looking objects when plowing a field. The problem is so pervasive in some countries that it limits the food supply.

The purchase cost of an anti-personnel mine is $3 to $25, the cost of removing it safety is $600-$1,000. To remove and deactivate the present number of land mines the cost is estimated at $53 billion. The United Nations has set up a trust fund for this purpose but has raised only $60 million so far. At the present rate Cambodia will be cleared of buried mines in 502 years if no more are laid. However, the priority areas, e.g., main roads, will be cleared by 1998.

Soldiers lay the mines but are unwilling to dig them up. One land mine clearance worker is killed for every 2,000 land mines eliminated. And soldiers who lay the mines may not be the most trust-worthy people to take them up. Not all mines can be located with metal detectors; the plastic ones have very little metal in them. Some are triggered by light. With today's technology half the time taken to defuse a mine is spent clearing away the grass and bushes. Better equipment and methods are needed, At the U.N. the task falls under the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. One of only three people at the U.N. assigned to work on this issue is Deputy De-mining Expert Tore Skedsno. He points out that the ownership of the mine changes when it is buried. "However, it is not big business for the military producers and the Pentagon has found that land mines are not necessary in a military sense. National de-mining capabilities need to be developed. We have trained people who are working In Afghanistan and Mozambique now and we will begin in Angola next." In Cambodia 12 experts train Cambodians at the U.N. sponsored Mine Action Centre.

Two U.N. studies are looking at amending the Inhumane Weapons Convention and the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions and Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects. A review conference on the 1980 Convention will be held in Geneva, Sept. 25 to Oct. 13, 1995. Land mines are certainly "indiscriminate"; 90 percent of victims are civilians.

No Verification Yet

Although Canada cosponsored the 1993 U.N. resolution calling on all countries to institute a moratorium, Canada has not done this itself because it claims not to have exported anti-personnel land mines since 1987. This position leaves the possibility of such exports in doubt. Canadian Foreign Minister, Andre Ouellet, has jumped on the old Canadian bandwagon of verification. It's true there is no way of verifying compliance or enforcing a ban on land mines, but it would be a shame to block progress by waiting for these mechanisms. Canadian International lawyer Doug Scott has proposed a permanent U.N. verification agency for all treaties and our government should support this.

Although President Clinton has stated at the U.N. that land mines are a high priority for his government and that humanitarian consequences override any legitimacy that anti personnel land mines may have had under rules of armed conflict, the United States is pursuing a course which only sounds good. Joost Hiltermann of the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch in Washington notes that the U.S. has never ratified the 1980 Convention and, with the new victories of the Republicans, treaties will be even less likely to receive assent. At another level, he states that the U.S. is adding the caveat that it will agree to end land mine export only as viable and humane alternatives are developed and it will support a ban only on non-detectable mines and those that do not self-destruct. Is it coincidental that the U.S makes the more sophisticated mines which are designed to self-destruct? Yet non-governmental bodies are forced to support the U.S. position because it is better than nothing.

The U.S. fears more than the loss of military business. It also worries that, if the land mines campaign is successful, it could be extended to many other classifications of weapons. It is claimed that the U.S. is now in the testing phase for small laser weapons which permanently blind people. Production could begin next year.

NGO Action Crucial

Non-governmental organizations are crucial to the success of the campaign against land mines. We must urge countries to uphold the rule of law and the necessity of global guidelines at the U.N. We must demand that Canada participate fully in the review conference and introduce an amendment to the 1980 Convention so it will apply to internal conflicts as well as external.

The issue is of vital importance to women who must care for husbands and children who are maimed and who, when maimed themselves, are sometimes rejected by their community. The utter callousness of the arms merchants is reflected in the words of an anonymous weapons dealer as quoted In The New Internationalist, "There are no real risks in this business if you work properly and stay within the law. It's like selling anything, As for guilt, it's not part of my philosophy.... When you sell a shell you don't think what is going to happen with it. If you sell a car, it's the same, someone might get run over." Maybe it's time to picket arms dealers and the heads of land mine companies in their communities, so that their neighbors know what they do for a living.

We can write letters to our government and support actions by ordinary people to end this horror.

The New Internationalist, November 1994, advises using our power as consumers to avoid companies with defence connections. Listed as "Bad Company" are; General Motors (USA), Ford, Fiat, Nissan, Volvo, Renault, Toshiba, Hitachi, IBM, NEC, EMI, HMV, Capital (owned by EM), General Electric companies (Hotpoint, Creda and Cannon), ICI, Texaco and most other oil companies. (Source: Paul Eavis of Safer World.) To join in this campaign contact World Federalists of Canada, 613-232-0647, Physicians for Global Survival, 416S93-6828, Human Rights Watch-Arms Project, 202-371-6592, Project Ploughshares, 519-888-6541, Voice of Women, 416-537-9343 and Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society (Dr. David Aston of Calgary).

Shirley Farlinger is a Toronto writer.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1995, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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