This weekend, tense negotiations have been going on between American diplomats and their international counterparts at the Oslo Diplomatic Conference. The original aim of the gathering, organised by the Canadian government, was clear: a total ban on the use, export, production, and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines. Despite the absence of some big players, about 100 countries have come together in a movement which gained enormous moral and emotional momentum with Diana's sudden death.
For some countries, however, the groundswell of public opinion against mines is a problem. Particularly after the images of Diana embracing limbless children in Angola, it is difficult for any government to come out as pro-landmines, but a number of significant users of the devices have not signed up to the Canadian initiative. Russia, India and Pakistan are present, but only as observers; China has not sent any representative to the talks; and the pariah states of Iran, Iraq and Libya are not taking part. Until a fortnight ago, there was another, unexpected member of this unsavoury assembly of landmine lovers - that guardian of the free world, the United States.
Conscious of this anomaly, the US joined the Canadian initiative a fortnight ago, and here the trouble began. For, if the American government wants fervently to be seen as anti-landmine, the American military thinks otherwise. On Friday, officials in Washington announced a list of exceptions to the total ban which must be in place before they will sign the treaty. These include a delay in implementation of the treaty (to allow signatory governments to find "alternative" devices), a clause to allow the use of "smart" mines (which self-destruct after a fixed period of time) and a total exemption of the ban for the Korean peninsula.
The truth is that all sides acknowledge that landmines can be very useful to armies especially in a situation like Korea, the last Cold War flashpoint on earth. There, two huge armies face one another across a demilitarised zone (DMZ). Immediately south of the zone as many as a million mines have been laid by the Americans and South Koreans against a potential invasion by the million-strong communist army to the north. The purpose of the mines is to slow down an invasion, destroy the invader's vehicles and personnel, and channel the enemy into "killing zones" where they can be more easily picked off by artillery and aerial attack. America claims that, without the mines, an extra 20,000 troops would have to be put in harm's way to provide the same level of deterrence.
The Americans insist that mines in Korea are used "judiciously" - carefully charted and maintained in areas strictly off limits to civilians. But less than a year ago a soldier was killed after a wet summer during which mines shifted their positions underground.
General John Tilelli, US commander in South Korea, said this month: "As a commander on the ground, I think that protecting the lives of the soldiers and the civilians on the south side of the DMZ is a humanitarian issue."
One Red Cross official said: "If the North Koreans invade, one of their battle plans is to spread a million mines in five days, and saturate the area between the DMZ and Seoul. Not just smart mines, but the old dumb mines as well. It's a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen."Reuse content