DEFUSING THE DEMON
How landmines became such a hit in wars around the world -
and how a gathering storm of protest has moved us closer to a ban.
BIRTH OF A KILLER
The first landmines were designed to stop the battle tank, that scourge of trench warfare, during World War One they were effectively just buried artillery shells with exposed fuses. The development of lightweight explosive TNT in the 1920s made the first reliable antitank mines possible. During World War Two 300 million of these were used, more than two-thirds of them by the Soviet Union. Designed to explode under the weight of a vehicle, these mines were often removed by enemy troops on foot. As a result armies began protecting their antitank minefields by using small metallic or glass containers with about half a kilo of explosive which could be activated by the pressure of a footstep. From improvised hand grenades to the German 'Bouncing Betty', a mine that sprang to the height of two metres before spraying its victims with hundreds of steel balls, the antipersonnel mine had come into its own.
GARBAGE AND BUTTERFLIES
After the Second World War mine technology advanced rapidly and in the early 1960s the US unleashed its sophisticated 'remotely delivered' mines or 'scatterables' on Laos and then Cambodia, in a vain attempt to stop the movement of soldiers and provisions from North to South Vietnam. Scattered from the air, these mines (nicknamed 'garbage' by the crews carrying them) landed on the ground without detonating. Weighing a puny 20 grams, they were capable of taking off the foot that stepped on them. The randomly scattered mines could not be mapped and US Forces often suffered heavy casualties when retreating through areas previously mined by their own pilots. A decade later the Soviet Union also used random targeting during its invasion of Afghanistan and millions of PFM-1 'butterfly' mines settled gracefully to the ground awaiting victims.
Today a plague of landmines has enveloped the world's conflict zones, with an estimated 110 million antipersonnel mines in the ground and an equal number in military stockpiles. Most have been supplied by Northern producers to countries thousands of miles away, where political and economic instability are common. Cheap and easy to use, they are the favourite weapons in civil wars and wars of insurgency, used by governments and guerrillas alike. These 'eternal sentinels' stand guard long after the conflicts have ended and kill and maim without mercy or discrimination.
After the Vietnam War, senior US military officials attested to the inability of landmines to stave off an attack, while stressing the horrific injuries they had caused their own troops. In fact between a fifth and a third of all US deaths during the War were caused by these weapons. The earliest calls for a ban, however, grew out of the experience of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Afghanistan and Cambodia, where the high rates of injury and death amongst returning refugees presented a crisis of unprecedented proportions. In 1991 Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights published the first detailed study of how landmines were actually being used in The Coward's War: Landmines in Cambodia. The book made a strong case for humanitarian demining, which aims to make the land completely safe for human use a far cry from stock military mine-clearing techniques.
THE BALL STARTS TO ROLL
October 1992 marked the real beginning of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines when six NGOs combined their separate initiatives: Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group, Physicians for Human Rights and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. None of the six groups on the steering committee of the International Campaign came from the disarmament community. There was also at first a notable lack of indigenous organizations from mine-affected countries who were hard-pressed enough to deal with the everyday realities confronting them. But by 1995 the Campaign had embraced a multitude of groups from all corners of the world and been given a huge boost when the International Committee of the Red Cross overcame its usual reluctance to deal with 'political' issues and launched its parallel, well-documented campaign. Attention focuses on the political initiatives and conferences but it is the tireless efforts of people on the ground starting humanitarian mine-clearance, organizing support for those injured by mines, exposing the horrors of mine warfare which have brought a ban closer.
LAWS AND INTENTIONS
In March 1995, Belgium became the first country to legislate a domestic ban on the production, procurement, sale and transfer of landmines and their components and technology, despite opposition from its armed forces. Previously it had been a leading mine exporter, and while a declining market and the receding threat from the Eastern Bloc were probably factors in the decision, there is no denying the value of Belgium's example. Austria and Ireland have followed suit. At the regional level, governments from Central America and the Caribbean have announced their intention to create mine-free zones. Southern Africa is starting to talk along the same lines.
TREATIES AND TURNAROUNDS
If warfare were conducted according to agreed principles, then landmines would be illegal. The Geneva Convention and its two Protocols outlaw the use of weapons that do not distinguish between combatants and civilians and which cause needless injury. However, armies around the world haven't lost sleep over such proscriptions.
In 1995-96 the review conference of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol II brought together the world's biggest landmine producers and users as well as supporters of a comprehensive ban. The review worked (and got stalled) by consensus and thus achieved very little that would limit the use of landmines. It did, however, get foreign and defence ministries talking about mines and forced top soldiers, who had viewed them as conventional components of their arsenals, to reassess their utility against the wider humanitarian costs (not to mention the political heat).
THE OTTAWA PROCESS
Bypassing the failure of consensus politics, a Canadian initiative in October 1996 convened an historic conference in Ottawa. The 50 governments who fully participated signed a declaration recognizing the urgent need to ban antipersonnel landmines. At the end Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy boldly announced his country's willingness to hold a treaty-signing conference in December 1997, thus imposing a definite time-scale. The Ottawa Process, which has included NGO input, has brought real hope of a widespread ban regardless of whether or not countries opposed to it, such as China and Russia, follow suit. Currently 97 countries support the Ottawa Process. If a substantial ban materializes in December, then attention will need to focus on the gargantuan task of demining the world and destroying the existing stockpiles to say nothing of support for the people whose lives have been devastated. Mine clearance is expensive and former producers may not exactly be eager to pay for it. A worldwide ban is still some years away.
Sources: Rae McGrath, Landmines: Legacy of Conflict, Oxfam, Oxford, 1994; The Arms Project of Human Rights Watch & Physicians for Human Rights, Landmines: a Deadly Legacy, New York, 1993; Campaign chronology from the fourth International NGO Conference on Landmines in Maputo, 25-28 February 1997; various ICRC factsheets; material provided by Joanne Velin.
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997
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