Fury at UN failure to ban mines that maim

Humanitarian agencies yesterday described the United Nations Inhumane Weapons Convention conference, which ended without a total ban on anti- personnel landmines, a "dismal failure".

Diplomatic sources stressed the achievements of the two-week conference, but the British working group on landmines, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, Unicef and Christian Aid, said its decisions were "riddled with loopholes, delays and lack of enforcement. In essence this is a mine layers' charter".

The conference, held in Geneva, agreed to ban laser weapons designed to blind people but failed to agree a blanket ban on the anti-personnel mines which kill or maim an estimated 20,000 people a year - mostly civilians - after the wars in which they were laid have ended.

Nations do not have to comply with the convention until nine years after it comes into force, meaning that "dumb" anti-personnel mines - which do not self-destruct after a certain period of time - can be laid, legally for the next decade.

After that, it will be illegal to lay "dumb" mines. But although the convention is legally binding, there are no provisions for verifying compliance.

The revised protocol introduces strict standards for the self-destructing mines, which remain legal, to ensure they are easy to detect.

New standards for marking minefields are also included, except where "direct enemy military action makes it impossible to comply". That is likely to be the case in many future armed conflicts.

Aid agencies criticised the protocol for "legitimising" the "smart" mines which critics say are not sufficiently reliable to remove the threat to civilians.

The conference, attended by more than 80 countries, has extended the scope of the convention to civil wars, where almost all the recent carnage caused by anti-personnel mines has occurred. But many internal operations, such as those in Chechnya or Kashmir, could be classified as "internal security" or police actions, thus evading the convention.

Humanitarian groups also attacked the definition of anti-personnel mines, described as those "primarily designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person".

This could exclude dual-use mines, designed to destroy light vehicles, and the sub-munitions from weapons like Britain's JP-233 anti-runway weapon, which are "primarily" designed to destroy runways.

The convention bans the transfer of anti-personnel mines to "non-state" groups - like Hizbollah or the IRA - but humanitarian agencies are also sceptical about enforcing that part of the convention.

Diplomatic sources insisted the convention would help. British Foreign Office minister David Davis announced on 22 April that Britain would destroy 46 per cent of its stock of about 20,000 anti-personnel mines.

It would destroy the remainder if a total world-wide ban was agreed - something that is now unlikely in the near future.

The conference did succeed in agreeing provisions for penal sanctions against people seriously violating the protocol, although it might be difficult to discover who had laid mines, and for an annual conference to discuss land mines.

The next full review conference will take place in five years.

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