Britain to support ban on land-mines

United Nations weapons review: Geneva conference to be told of change in policy
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Britain is today expected to announce a change in its policy on anti-personnel land-mines, and to tell the United Nations Weapons Convention Review Conference which opened in Geneva yesterday that it will support a world-wide ban on their manufacture, export and use.

The move follows indications that senior members of the United States military favour a total ban, and studies by the Red Cross and other independent organisations which cast doubt on the military effectiveness of anti-personnel mines.

The first session of the review conference in September 1995 banned the use and transfer of laser weapons specifically designed to blind people - the first time that a specific new kind of weapon had been banned since 1868. It failed to reach a decision on anti-personnel mines.

An estimated 100 million anti-personnel mines are scattered across the world, and they cause an estimated 20,000 casualties a year, mostly to farmers, other civilians and children. They also kill livestock. Experts estimate the plague of anti-personnel land-mines is now hindering development and reconstruction in more than 35 countries. There are an estimated 4 million mines in Bosnia, but they have taken their heaviest toll in Cambodia. In both cases the conflicts in which they were laid are now over but their scourge remains.

Until now the British government has supported the view that anti-personnel mines remain a legitimate weapon of war. They were intended to protect the larger anti-tank mines against attempts to clear them. Whereas anti- tank mines are fairly easy to detect and require a heavy weight to set them off, anti-personnel mines are often made from plastic and other undetectable materials. They are not designed to kill outright, but to inflict horrible wounds, especially to the legs and genitals, which, besides crippling the victims, overload the medical services.

However, "dual-use" mines, which can destroy vehicles and maim and kill, are increasingly available. The Red Cross is opposing the definition of anti-personnel mines as those "primarily designed" to maim or kill people, as this could render any future agreement ambiguous. It believes all mines should be detectable and that "anti-handling devices" - booby traps - should be prohibited.

Britain recently faced isolation among the more developed countries following a statement by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, that he was "inclined to eliminate all anti- personnel land-mines". General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the victorious Allied forces in the 1991 Gulf war, also signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton supporting a total ban. Germany recently renounced anti-personnel mines as a weapon it would use in war.

British diplomatic sources yesterday stressed that the reluctance to sign up to a total ban was due to doubts about whether it would work. The countries which still export anti-personnel land-mines - China, India and Pakistan - have not signed up to any restrictions. Russia has sign a three-year moratorium on anti-personnel mines which do not destroy themselves after a given period.