Arms-makers win clearance contract in Mozambique

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The Independent Online
HUMAN RIGHTS groups and anti-landmine campaigners are furious over the award of the largest United Nations landmine clearance contract to a consortium of British and South African companies, including firms which have contributed to the landmine scourge that is killing and maiming civilians around the world.

The contract worth dollars 5m ( pounds 3.3) of international humanitarian money to clear landmines from 2,000km of roads in central Mozambique was awarded last month to two British firms, Lonrho and Royal Ordnance, and a South African arms manufacturer, Mechem.

Mechem has been involved in research and development of landmines and other military equipment for the South African Defence Force for the past 26 years. When the former white minority government in South Africa was backing the Unita rebels in Angola and the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), Mechem was deeply involved in providing anti-vehicle and anti- personnel landmines to Pretoria's client warlords.

Although Royal Ordnance, the former government-owned munitions supplier which was privatised and sold to British Aerospace in 1987, has not produced landmines for 10 years, it is keen to get back into the landmine business.

The company fielded a competing team in a Ministry of Defence programme entitled MINX - Mines Into The Next Century. The MoD was looking to MINX to develop a new generation of sophisticated mechanically-laid anti- tank mines which could be remotely switched on and off as tactical needs dictated. The programme has been scrapped for the moment due to defence cuts, but not before Royal Ordnance poured large amounts of its own research money into the project.

'If a contract to make landmines came along Royal Ordnance would be back in the mines business in a flash,' said one industry observer who used to work for Royal Ordnance.

Humanitarian groups call the practice of making money from both production and clearance of landmines 'double-dipping'.

'Double-dipping is a problem because it sends the message that making mines is OK as long as you clean up afterwards. But the truth is that more mines are laid than are ever picked up. The only way to really stop this plague is to stop producing and using mines and to clean up what is already out there,' said Ken Anderson, the director of the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch in New York.

The UN landmine clearance contract for Mozambique, which has been in discussion for more than six months and dogged by controversy from the outset, was in the end awarded to the Royal Ordnance-Mechem-Lonrho consortium over objections from the humanitarian groups which have headed a two-year old campaign to ban landmine production and use.

At the second annual Non-governmental Organisation Conference on Landmines in Geneva last month, delegates passed a resolution that humanitarian contracts should not go to companies involved in making mines. 'The UN needs to give full attention to this issue and must find methods of working which separate mine clearers from the arms industry,' said Tony Vaux, Oxfam's emergency co-ordinator and a leading anti-landmine campaigner.

Part of the problem is that landmine clearance is viewed by many of the world's leading military companies as an enormous cash cow and a growth industry. 'Companies involved think there must be money in it because of the scale of the problem,' said a spokesman for Defence Systems Ltd, a British firm which had competed with Royal Ordnance for the Mozambique contract.

It is estimated that there are already more than 100 million mines scattered around 62 countries. While 80,000 mines are removed each year in dangerous and expensive mine-clearing operations, around 2 million new landmines are laid during the same period. The estimated cost of removing a landmine is somewhere between dollars 300 and dollars 1,000 per mine.

And because landmines represent an important obstacle to development objectives and repatriating refugees, de-mining is fast becoming a fundamental precursor for any type of humanitarian assistance in areas which have been afflicted by war.

What this means is that a large amount of internatioanl relief money will be up for grabs. The Mozambique contract is just the beginning. According to UN officials, in the next few years there will be between dollars 30m and dollars 40m of contracts just to de-mine Mozambique and Angola. Even larger sums will be needed to clean up the former Yugoslavia when the war there is over.

One senior UN humanitarian official in New York said that the organisation has learnt its lesson. 'The Mozambique contract was a painful experience. We should have thought about the companies' connections to the landmine industry, but we didn't. I can honestly say that it is extemely doubtful that a landmine clearance contract will ever again be awarded to a mines manufacturer,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)