Landmines-The Best Hope for Peace

Article excerpt

THE 1997 Ottawa Convention banned the use and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines, 135 nations have signed the convention, including the United Kingdom; we have also ratified it, and supported the convention's aims as they became official United Nations policy with General Assembly Resolution 53/77. The convention requires those that do so to abandon the use of landmines within ten years.

To restrict British policy in this way was misguided and we should withdraw from the convention as soon as possible--certainly before our commitment becomes binding.

Landmines are an excellent way of defending a wide area for very little money. They permit the defence of an area without requiring an accompanying large personnel attendance. This is a legitimate aim both in warfare, when military personnel are spread too thinly to protect all pockets of civilians, and in poor countries during peacetime, who would rather invest in their infrastructure than funding the military capacity that would otherwise be required to defend the same ground.

When armies still depend on conventional weapons and movement--moving tanks and large infantry groups--and borders are weak, the defensive tactic of landmines is highly appropriate: it is cheap, affordable, and maintains borders. Their existence can slow or stop an advance, delaying or even halting conflict; they can deter invasion in the first place. By guarding wide areas from swift armed advance on civilians, they can prevent genocide.

For this reason, the implications of removing landmines from the internationally available pool of armaments ought to be considered with particular attention to Africa, the theatre most likely to see such action taking place. Banning landmines disproportionately punishes small, underdeveloped countries unable to develop the higher-technology military capacity that has rendered them less useful to richer nations; that is to say, banning landmines harms precisely the kind of nation most likely to need them for defensive purposes.

The ban has an asymmetric effect: it only stops nations that obey the law from using landmines. Most nations contemplating invasion will ignore it, deploying them aggressively to defend captured territory. On the other hand, many that would use them defensively for themselves or for multinational defence of a vulnerable nation or people will observe the ban and thus weaken themselves and those they guard. The landmine should in fact be a primary tool of the United Nations' efforts to protect those in its care.

Instead, the ban fails to distinguish between different kinds of antipersonnel mines. The American arsenal includes mines that can deactivate themselves and can self-destruct. Furthermore, the ban fails to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible users. Under American deployment, they are used responsibly, being set and removed in a methodical manner. These mines, used in peacekeeping initiatives, protect US troops and present little danger to civilians. Stopping their use would endanger the lives of peacekeepers and make the US less likely to enter into such operations--part of the reason the US refused to sign the Ottawa treaty in 1997, and has declined to do so since. America only manufactures smart mines, and has--since 1976 tested 32,000 mines with a successful self-destruction rate of 99.996 per cent.

It is such anti-personnel mines--reliable, controllable, capable of responsible use--that would be used in peacekeeping operations in which Britain will take part in the future, were the option to be open. Such a facility is to be desired.

The use of landmines in war time or a tense environment is a totally separate issue to cleaning them up in peace time; efforts to band the two together by proban commentators should be resisted. The former can be fixed without banning the latter. We should realise that the consequence of keeping landmines legal is an obligation on the part of those that use them to fund clean-up efforts much more substantially. This obligation should be rigorously enforced, and the attention of humanitarian organisations in international civil society would undoubtedly urge its use once it is created.

Perhaps British withdrawal from the convention would encourage others to take up landmines once again--others who would use such weapons less responsibly, with devastating consequences. Perhaps. In the hands of irresponsible users, it is true that blowing up one's own citizens, military and civilian alike, is a large possibility. Communications are not comprehensive in a war situation. Mined areas are insufficiently signed, or entirely unmarked. In peace, mines are often the cause of terrible injuries long after the conflict they were designed to take part in has ended. But this fear should be contained and catered for rather than allowed to distort the West's efforts abroad, leading to the selection of worse policies. The West could do much more by encouraging the use of 'smart' mines, which deactivate themselves after a proscribed period, and by monitoring and signing the deployment of landmines--which solidify otherwise indefensible borders--rather than dumping incompetent peacekeepers to oversee ballooning, undisciplined armies that nations develop if they cannot deploy landmines, because they are so insecure. Once said army is up and running, the nation concerned has a large and ongoing expense--so it gets an idea: why not use it? The 'defensive capacity' becomes an offensive one. This is not the case with landmines. Landmines do not march on your neighbour's towns. Furthermore nations that want to use landmines will do so regardless of the position taken by Britain (or any other nation)--as demonstrated by the current prolific use of mines despite the mass of signatories to the Ottawa convention.

Besides, banning such weapons reeks of hypocrisy when we applaud its use in certain arenas, with good cause. Applied in particular places, landmines have obvious benefits. In the Korean peninsula, a land border separates two large armies. The North's army, a million men strong, stands one and a half hour's advance away from Seoul. Landmines, clearly demarcated and deployed, make a surprise advance--and thus, war--much less likely. Whilst a wider desire to keep landmines as a military option was also at play, the refusal of the Oslo conference to grant an exception for the Korean theatre was the immediate cause of US withdrawal from the Ottawa convention. The situation on the India-Pakistan border, one of the most contested borders in the world, is less immediately conducive to landmine deployment because of the wide, occupied areas such as Kashmir that are under disputed ownership; but nevertheless constructive use of landmines in that arena is potentially possible too: perhaps a logic that has contributed to the refusal of both India and Pakistan to sign the convention.

Furthermore, in general terms landmines boast obvious military benefits that ought to be considered. They are easy and quick to deploy. They can force an advancing enemy to take an approach or position in which they are at a disadvantage. They can save lives--the lives of soldiers that would otherwise be lost defending the territory they can guard. They permit the deployment elsewhere of the troops that would otherwise be required. Injuries to personnel from landmines slow down the unit concerned, reducing their efficiency. Landmines deter advance from a strategic perspective--advancing is harder; and from a psychological perspective--the prospect of advance is frightening. These benefits may seem of little use to British forces at the moment, but--as recent events have shown--our military increasingly finds itself operating in new arenas and new conditions at short notice--in many such places, these advantages would be useful for British troops and might save British lives. And on a practical level, all these aims will be catered for in another way if landmines are unavailable: as long as grenades and pressure plates are legal, this is a rather moot discussion as when combined, they form an inefficient alternative to landmines anyway.

The horrifying injuries sustained by civilians, often years after conflicts have ended, have been a powerful force in motivating the opinion of international civil society against landmine use. The deaths of scores of people--often children--from unattended anti-personnel landmines (APLs) is to be lamented. But, as Michael Renner observes, 90 per cent of armament casualties result from small arms fire. To take on landmines is to attack a small proportion of the 10 per cent, an element that, properly used, can save many civilian lives from those that would do them harm. We should do our best to stop such deaths--but not by removing a prime tool of warfare from our arsenal.

It is at first glance counterintuitive to suggest that landmines save lives. But until groups of people no longer wish to harm one another, their defensive capability can and will prove useful. It is time to abandon the landmine ban.

Alexander Deane is a former Research Fellow at the think tank Policy Exchange.