New Internationalist

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Issue 256

new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

Update

MEXICO

Uncivil society
Assassination brings turmoil

A refugee from the Chiapas town of Altamirano
PHOTO: CITLALI ROVIROSA MADRAZO

The assassination in northern Mexico of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and front-runner for presidential elections this summer, has thrown the country into turmoil. US business interests have $60 billion invested in the country and a sharp dip on Wall Street followed Colosio’s assassination. The US Government promptly agreed a $6 billion package to stabilize money markets in Mexico City.

Negotiations in the south between the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) and the Mexican Government following the Chiapas uprising were disrupted. The Government’s negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, had been one of Colosio’s chief rivals for the PRI presidential nomination and was highly critical of his campaign. The day before the assassination Camacho denied he had any intention of standing for the presidency himself, despite persistent rumours to the contrary.

All of this obscured the intense interest with which Mexicans had been following the negotiation process and the EZLN’s demands. Their spokesperson, ‘Subcomandante Marcos’, became something of a national celebrity. In the cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas where the negotiations were taking place he asserted that: ‘We do not want power. We are not asking the army to surrender or grant us power. We are not even after a Governorship, an Embassy or the Presidency. So why should we become a political party? Aren’t there enough in the country already?... What we want is very simple. It is called justice, democracy and freedom.’ At the heart of the EZLN demands are land, ethnic recognition, autonomy for the Indians and the protection of human rights.

Mexican non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had, at the request of the EZLN, been drawn deeply into the negotiation process. According to Subcomandante Marcos they have become ‘a fundamental part of the movement for peace, a peace with dignity for those of us who have nothing and who found ourselves forced to take up arms to make ourselves heard... We decided to trust our lives and freedom to the NGOs because in them we have seen the future to which we aspire. A future in which civil society... makes wars and armies unnecessary; a future when governments, whatever their political persuasion, will be constantly watched over by the vigilance of a democratic and free society.’

The concern must be that the conciliatory attitude so far shown by President Salinas towards the EZLN – and towards the widespread grievances they have come to represent – will endure only until the presidential elections are over in August. There could then be a return to the brutal repression with which the uprising was initially met by the Mexican Army.

Citlali Rovirosa Madrazo/David Ransom

EZLM negotiators at work in San Cristobal cathedral.
PHOTO: CITLALI ROVIROSA MADRAZO

Population lacking access to safe drinking water. Mega-slums
By the year 2000 there will be 23 cities in the world with at least 10 million people and 18 of them will be in developing countries. At least half of their inhabitants will live in crowded tenements, shantytowns and slums without basic amenities. A new report calls for a radical rethink. Instead of deploring city growth and dismissing the new urbanites as rural people in the wrong place, it wants policy-makers to recognize the capacities of slum dwellers to provide their own amenities.

Mega-Slums: the coming sanitary crisis, by Maggie Black, from WaterAid, 1 Queen Anne’s Gate, London SW1H 9BT.

Riding the escalator
Residents of Victoria Peak, one of Hong Kong’s most desirable addresses, can now descend from the ‘mid-levels’ to the central business districts in only 20 minutes using the $26.37 million Hillside Escalator Link, the longest stretch of escalators and travelators in the world. The link is a reversible one-way system with an adjacent path and steps to let people enter and leave at various points. Business-bound residents can travel down from The Peak between 6.00am and 10.00am and back up between 10.00am and 10.00pm – and avoid the congestion on the narrow road. The new walkway will attract 26,000 people a day because it is fast, free, has multiple entry points and is not locked into a schedule as are buses and trams.

Consumer Currents, No 162

Cash to spare
Three 12-year-old boys found a $150 million cheque and handed it to the police. Coutts, bankers to Her Majesty the Queen, rewarded them with $15 each.

The Economist, Vol 330, No 7854

 

SPECIAL REPORT - LANDMINES


Deadly legacy
‘Anti-personnel’ devices have been sown in vast numbers around the world.
Mounting efforts are now being made to get them banned.

Number of landmine models produced by each country in 1992/3
Among the world's producers Italy is one of the largest. In 1991 Valsella (half-owned by Fiat) was convicted of illegally selling arms to Iraq, including some nine million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. During the 1980s Britain's Thorn EMI sold one million of its Ranger scatterable mines to four unspecified nations.

‘The accident happened near our house in Mandera. I picked up the mine and showed it to my cousin Zeinab. She asked what it was. I said I thought it was a mine or a hand-grenade. My cousin pulled some kind of plug. We immediately saw some smoke. Zeinab ran and there was a big explosion. It hit me full in the face.’

Hinda Yassin Warsame, aged nine, was injured by a mine on 20 June 1992 in Somaliland. Her chin was broken, her face badly damaged and the lower part of her tongue torn off. She is just one among an estimated one million people, many of them children, who have become casualties of ‘anti-personnel’ mines during the past 15 years. And the carnage continues: somewhere between 400 and 800 people worldwide are still being maimed or killed by them every month.

There are now some 100 million such devices scattered over the land in 62 different countries around the world. The only continents left entirely free of them are Australasia and Antarctica.

What makes this situation particularly alarming is that landmines have become cheaper, easier to use and harder to detect. They have an indefinite lifespan and, unless painstakingly cleared, will continue to pose a threat to civilian populations for many years to come.

Half a century after the battle of El Alamein in North Africa, Egyptian Bedouin still avoid what they call the ‘fields of the devil’ – 75,000 square kilometres of exceptionally thick minefields laid by the British. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that in Afghanistan 27 UN teams clearing 30 square kilometres of minefields a year would take 4,300 years to clear just 20 per cent of Afghan territory.

Even in the Malvinas/Falkland Islands mines remain uncleared 12 years after the war. Because they are made largely of plastic they have proved almost impossible to detect. Sheep have been driven across the minefields in a vain effort to detonate the mines. The UK Government has offered a reward for anyone who can resolve the problem – a reward that so far remains unclaimed, although there are hopes that new microwave technology might prove effective. In the meantime the minefields have simply been abandoned behind fences and warning notices.

Yet despite international agreements and mounting concern, mines are still being manufactured and laid at a rate of between five and ten million a year. Reports suggest that as many as 60,000 mines were at one point being laid every week in the former Yugoslavia. There are 78 different producers of ‘anti-personnel’ devices in 44 countries making some 307 different products in all. For the most part the manufacturers are in the North and the victims in the South.

Africa is probably the worst-affected continent with as many as 30 million mines spread across 18 different countries. In Mozambique, after 18 years of civil war, two million landmines have made all 28 major roads unusable. US officials put the number of mines sown during the continuing war in Angola at nine million, but British Army engineers reckon the figure is probably double that.

Possibly the worst-affected single country is Afghanistan, where experts believe at least nine million mines have been left in the ground, but one official estimate in the US has put the figure at 60 million. Cambodia is hardly more fortunate. Between four and seven million mines, perhaps one for every Cambodian, have produced 30,000 amputees, the largest number in the world per head of the population.

The scale of human suffering that has resulted is hard to imagine. Children are particularly vulnerable – unaware of the dangers and difficult to restrict to safe areas. One report tells of a girl in Somalia who was tethered all day to a tree so that she could not stray onto mined land. In Cambodia many of the 350,000 refugees in border camps cannot find homes because the vast areas of land that have been infested with mines are unusable. Fear of mines is one reason why 3.5 million Afghan refugees do not return to their homes.

Quite apart from the horrific injuries to the victims, a huge extra burden has fallen on health-care services and civilian communities in what are often war-torn and impoverished regions. Large areas of potentially productive farm land have become unusable, exacerbating already severe problems of food supply.

Mines produce damage either by blast or by penetration of metallic fragments. The variable extent of damage to the human body makes surgery difficult. Few surgeons in the world have experience and skill in dealing with such wounds. Double-limb amputees are usually confined to wheelchairs, if there are any; otherwise many become beggars.

The principle reason mines go uncleared is cost. The bill for a worldwide clean-up is estimated at $85 billion. The UN requested $20 million for Afghanistan but received only half that amount; in Cambodia $10 million and received only $3 million. In the financial year 1993-94 the US budgeted $10 million for mine clearance, while between 1986 and 1991 Washington sent an estimated $250 million to UNITA in Angola, one of the groups chiefly responsible for laying the mines that now litter that country.

Millions of mines continue to be produced and sold precisely because they are so cheap and easy to use. In Cambodia they are called ‘eternal sentinels’. ‘Mines may be described as fighters that never miss, strike blindly, do not carry weapons openly and go on killing long after hostilities are ended,’ says one former delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The devices can cost as little as $6 and can be scattered almost literally like seeds.

A groundswell of international opinion has, however, been rising against the trade. The US Congress has imposed a ban on the ‘sale, export and transfer of landmines’ which lasts until November 1996. France has imposed a moratorium and called for a conference under the 1980 Landmines Protocol. In October 1993 Belgium and the EC, with 88 co-sponsors, introduced a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for a concerted programme of mine clearance. In December 1993 a non-binding motion was passed by the General Assembly asking for sales to be stopped. The UK Government, however, does not favour a ban. The Foreign Office in London believes that ‘more sophisticated forms of landmine, which decay or self-destruct, can be a legitimate means of self defence in the right hands’.

Vigorous lobbying is going to be needed to get the best intentions translated into practice: an urgent clean-up programme and an effective ban on the manufacture as well as on the international trade in the devices.

Paul Donovan

Contacts:
Aotearoa/New Zealand
: J Head, UN Association of New Zealand, PO Box 11 – 750, Betty Campbell Complex, Wakefield Street, Wellington;
Australia
: Andre Frankovitz, Human Rights Council of Australia, PO Box 182, Glebe, NSW 2037;
Canada/US: Jody Williams, Vietnam Veterans of America, 2001 S Street NW, Suite 740, Washington DC 2009;
UK: Mines Advisory Group, 55a Main Street, Cockermouth, Cumbria, CA13 9LU.

Worth reading: Landmines: a deadly legacy, from Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10017; War of the mines, by Paul Davies and Nic Dunlop, Pluto Press, 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA (forthcoming); Mines: a perverse use of technology, from ICRC publications, 19 Avenue de la Paix, 1202 Geneva; Violent deeds live on – Landmines in Somalia and Somaliland, African Rights, and the Mines Advisory Group (see ‘Contacts’ above for address).

Slick oil
Following constitutional developments marking the end of apartheid rule in South Africa the UN-imposed oil embargo has been lifted. But throughout the embargo years oil giants Shell and Total in South Africa had not imported their oil via the state procurement agency, but from other sources, thus circumventing the embargo. Shell SA admitted to this but would not reveal whether it had obtained oil from Shell companies abroad.

Newsletter on the Oil Embargo against South Africa,
No 33 from Weekly Mail, South Africa, 21 May 1993.

The writing on the wall
The Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, has come up with an anti-graffiti coating that is even more slippery than Teflon, the coating applied to nonstick frying pans and cooking utensils. ‘If you put paint on it, it just forms globules that you can wipe off with a cloth,’ explains Don Schmidt, a Dow scientist who developed the coating in his spare time. The transparent material might also be used to stop barnacles building up on ships’ hulls, ice forming on aircraft and insects sticking to cars.

New Scientist, No 1916

Quote

‘The stone in the water does not know how hot the hill is, parched by the sun.’

Nigerian Proverb

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