Can We Ban Land Mines?

By Drinan, Robert F. | Commonweal, February 25, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Can We Ban Land Mines?


Drinan, Robert F., Commonweal


Land mines kill people, or maim them, because they're hidden. Most are buried, some are camouflaged. Step on one of them, or brush past its tripwire, and you're dead, or legless. Land mines cannot distinguish between the footfall of a soldier or a child or an old woman gathering firewood. Land mines recognize no cease-fire; a generation after the fighting has stopped, they can destroy the children of the soldiers who laid them.

Land mines are hidden not only physically but metaphorically; few people in this or other developed countries understand either the scope or the frightfulness of the problem they pose. Tens of millions of mines lie in wait in dozens of countries. According to a 1993 American Red Cross statement issued by Elizabeth Dole, exploding mines kill 800 people every month and injure another 450. Their presence not only endangers lives but makes much land too dangerous for farming or for resettlement of refugees. Yet until recently this enormous and still growing problem has had little attention.

That situation is beginning to change, so much so that one can ponder whether this lasting scourge of war may eventually be controlled and then, over decades, be eliminated. In October of last year a Boston-based nongovernmental organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility, an affiliate of Human Rights Watch, issued a 510-page report, "Land Mines, A Deadly Legacy." A media breakthrough was a comprehensive cover story, "It's the Little Bombs that Kill You," by Donovan Webster, published in the New York Times Magazine for January 24. Thanks largely to the leadership of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), some progress has been made on the political front as well. Late last year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill extending for three years a ban on all land mines first enacted in 1992, and he urged forty other states to follow suit. Last December 16 the United Nations General Assembly called for a worldwide ban on the export of these cheap, deadly devices.

Realistically, however, the steps taken to date are feeble compared with the magnitude of the problem. In his Time piece, Donovan Webster reports that in the former Yugoslavia some 60,000 new mines are laid each week, adding to a worldwide total of uncleared mines variously estimated at 85 million in fifty-six countries (the U.S. State Department) to 105 million or more in sixty-two nations (the United Nations).

Previous efforts at control are not reassuring. The first major attempt at regulation was the Land Mines Protocol of 1980, which has now been ratified by thirty-six nations (not including the United States, which has signed but not ratified the treaty). But the protocol stops short of banning the use of land mines outright; it forbids their use for military objectives in ways that violate international humanitarian law. In practice, the measure has proved porous and unenforceable.

In its exhaustive study, Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded that though land mines may be deployed for legitimate military purposes, they pose so catastrophic a threat to civilians that they must be outlawed. The report described the accumulation of the mines as "the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion." Since land mines in vast quantities have been sowed by governments and guerrillas in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Kuwait, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Somalia, among other nations, the PSR report had reason to declare that the mines are "aimed particularly at the developing world.

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