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U.N. Land Mine Conference Debates Controls

  • Lawrence Holland

Prague, Jan. 19 (RFE/RL) - An intense international debate continued this week over the future of a weapon of war which kills or injures more than 20,000 civilians each year - land mines.

In Geneva, Some 50 countries and international organizations today conclude a week-long United Nations conference on land mines. Delegates are debating amendments to a 1980 convention on conventional weapons. That earlier accord banned the indiscriminate use of mines in wars between states, called for protections for civilians, and called on belligerents to cooperate in clearing mines after a war ends.

Reports indicate this week's closed door gathering is debating proposals to include civil wars under the 1980 accord, to ban the production and sale of land mines that are not easily detectable, and to require that mines self-destruct or deactivate themselves after a limited period of time, perhaps as short as 30 days. No final decisions are expected before another conference in April.

The push for self-destructing or self-defusing mines stems from the fact that they create havoc in areas years after fighting stops. Land mines laid during World War Two - when the weapon was first widely used - are still killing and injuring civilians.

Reports say the debate this week centered on Chinese demands that they be allowed a 25-year period before they must meet new standards on self-destruct mechanisms. Other countries want compliance within ten years. China also wants its mines to remain lethal for up to five years. News reports say Russia, India and Pakistan have joined with China in resisting most proposed new restrictions.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the European Parliament, the Organization of African Unity, and 21 countries including Estonia and Slovenia say the proposals being debated this week do not go far enough. They want a total ban on the manufacture and export of all land mines.

The Swiss-based International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) - which has fitted some 60,000 civilian mine victims with artificial limbs since 1980 - agrees. The ICRC says Bosnia - where an estimated three-million land mines are laid - is among some 25 countries now in crisis because of mines.

Under the Bosnia peace accords, former combatants today are due to turn over maps of mine fields they have laid. Reports say some three-million mines are deployed in Croatia.

The ICRC says Afghanistan and Kurdish areas in northern Iraq are also among the world's most heavily mined areas.

A group of 400 non-governmental organizations from some 36 countries this week joined calls for a total ban on land mines, arguing that anything less would have little effect. Steve Goose of the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch called the U.N. conference "a week-long exercise in futility."

The activists say land mines - an estimated 110-million of which are now deployed in more than 60 countries - must be banned, because they are particularly harmful to civilians. As one activist put it, mines do not distinguish between the "footfall of a soldier and that of a child."

The activists also say use of mines interferes with agricultural production. For decades after fighting ends, farmland in many countries is dangerous ground. Since mines are often laid in countries where subsistence agriculture is widely practiced, they interfere with the only source of income available to much of the population, forcing people to choose between the perils of stepping on mines, or abject poverty. And those who lose a limb to a mine - some one-third of those who are not killed by them - are often unable to continue working the fields. Many fall back upon the only uccupation left to them - begging.

Given the human and economic costs of land mines, the question arises as to why there is resistance to prohibiting their manufacture and use. There are two answers.

First, they make a lot of money for the manufacturers. Paul Beaver with the London-based defense analysis group Jane's told our correspondent that Russia and China both earn tens of millions of dollars a year from their export. He says Romania, Slovakia and Italy are the other principal exporters.

The other main reason there is resistance to banning or limiting the use of mines is that militaries like them because they are cheap - as little as three dollars each - and highly effective. Beaver says that anti-personnel mines are assumed to be "worth one hundred soldiers" in terms of their effects on a battlefield. He says they slow advancing units, both by injury and by creating fear.

And anti-personnel mines, as opposed to more powerful anti-tank mines, generally do not kill their victims, at least not immediately. Beaver says they therefore tie up additional military units which have to carry away the wounded.

Observers say even if the international community eventually agrees to a ban on land mines, it will be many years before they no longer maim. Though cheap to manufacture and easy to deploy, clearing mines is slow, dangerous and costly work.

Experts estimate that it would cost some $33 billion to clear all the mines currently laid. Worse, the effort would result in the deaths of some 20,000 demolition experts and the injuring of twice that number. Perhaps most daunting, at the current rate of clearing, the job would take more than 1,000 years to complete.