REVIEW / A deadly rising trade in arms, and legs

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The Independent Culture
INVESTORS in Thorn-EMI (and I might be one myself for all I know, given the complicated nature of modern savings and pensions) might like to contemplate the fact that part of their profits come from land-mines, designed with the express purpose of maiming but not killing their victims (that way you can ensure that more troops are tied up for longer - a corpse can be left by the road, a wounded man has to be evacuated and treated).

As a macabre Horizon demonstrated last week, the technology of war is in some respects a bizarrely scrupulous business - there are international conventions on exactly how much of a mess a bullet can make of you (the Swiss, typically, have recently perfected a tidy one) and agreements on poison gas and biological weapons.

Naturally arms manufacturers, like tax lawyers, look for the loopholes. If dum- dum bullets are outlawed, then they can ensure that the full metal jacket projectile will tumble after entering the body - leaving a neat puncture hole and an exit- wound the size of a dinner plate. For some reason, though, land-mines currently fall outside these gentlemen's agreements.

The result is a killing machine that can't be told about ceasefires, couldn't give a toss about the difference between a five-year-old child and a charging infantry man, and is very, very patient. A mine can hold a grudge for 30 or 40 years, no problem. In keeping with the black pastoral of 'minefields', they can be sown by air, denying huge areas to the enemy. Of course, if the minefield is also a maizefield and you have hungry children to feed, 'denial' might not be one of your options. And here mines have another trick up their sleeve - they tend to obliterate the evidence when they blow up.

So it isn't possible to say, with absolute certainty, that it was a Thorn-EMI mine that orphaned the little girl who was found clinging to her mother's three-day- old corpse. It might not have been a Thorn-EMI mine that took both legs off a man unwise enough to go and pee in the bushes near Angola's main airport or left a small boy with only one leg. I think we can safely assume that it isn't Thorn-EMI mines alone that have made artificial limb manufacture the only growth industry in a country reduced to penury by civil war, because there are estimated to be around nine million mines in Angola, and if they'd all been made by Thorn-EMI, the directors would be sitting on Christmas bonuses bigger than the GDP of a small African state.

What you can say with some certainty is that there are Thorn-EMI mines in Africa and the British Government is decidedly opposed to recent attempts to close down the lucrative world-wide trade in this weapon. Under President Clinton, America has now decided to ban the sale of land-mines abroad but UN attempts to get general restrictions on their use have been blocked by Britain. Very similar ground was covered in last week's Horizon but last night's World in Action report on a visit to Angola by Simon Coaton, a former paratrooper who now clears mines for a living and reports for the Mines Advisory Group, was a little sharper in its focus and its anger.

At the current rate of production, the Angolan factory making artificial limbs will take 30 years to supply the country's existing amputees, a lamentable mismatch of supply and demand, particularly when you consider that new customers are provided every day. Looking at the shop-floor conditions, you didn't need John Harvey- Jones to tell you that, through no fault of their own, the managers were not applying modern techniques of production, stock- flow and quality control.

An efficiently managed company - let's say Thorn-EMI, for the sake of argument - could well clean up if they entered this market quickly. Of course, they hardly have an incentive to do that while the British Government continues to protect their existing exports - in other words while they continue to make a killing out of land-mines.