BRITISH-LED opposition to calls for a blanket ban on the production and export of anti-personnel mines is overcoming an international campaign to outlaw these weapons, which maim an estimated 150 civilian victims a week around the world.
Humanitarian organisations have focused attention on the horrors of mines because they are delayed-action weapons which affect civilians as much as soldiers.
'Landmines are blind weapons that cannot distinguish between the footfall of a soldier and that of an old woman gathering firewood,' says A Deadly Legacy, a report by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights.
Hopes were pinned on talks in Geneva last month, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pleaded for a total ban as part of a review of the 1980 UN Inhumane Weapons Convention.
It was then that Britain put the boot in, supported by China and the United States. They said the humanitarian law treaty was not the place for a discussion on disarmament. Britain said that changing the convention, to which only 41 states are party, was premature and would dissuade Third World countries from joining. UN agencies say the convention has failed, and that tinkering with it is a waste of time.
Britain said a global ban on mines would be counter-productive and would trigger the proliferation of low-technology mines, which cause the worst civilian injuries. But Steven Goose, co-author of A Deadly Legacy, says that Britain's policy is designed to protect a lucrative market for the next generation of high-technology mines produced in this country.
British mine and bomb manufacturers, who include the recently privatised Royal Ordnance, Hunting Engineering Ltd, Thorn EMI Electronics and Babcock Energy Ltd, are understood to be waiting for steam to run out of the campaign, and for an end to the UN moratorium agreed last year.
Britain insisted on an opt-out to the moratorium, to allow these companies to sell sophisticated mines that explode after a pre-set period. The failure rate of these mines is at least 20 per cent, however. Successful mine clearance requires a 99 per cent success rate before areas can be declared safe.
The anti-mine campaign, co- ordinated by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, has won enthusiastic support from the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unicef, the ICRC and over 100 other organisations, including Oxfam.
Armies say they use mines against troops or tanks. But increasingly they use mines against civilians, according to Oxfam. They are placed to create refugee flows. In Bosnia they are instruments of 'ethnic cleansing', to empty territory and create terror. Mines 'recognise no ceasefire and long after the fighting has stopped they can maim or kill the children and grandchildren of the soldiers who laid them', says Mr Goose.
Most landmine explosions that do not cause death result in traumatic amputations. In Cambodia it is estimated that one in 236 people has lost at least one limb from exploding mines.
According to the British Medical Journal, 'landmines . . . have ruinous effects on the human body: they drive dirt, bacteria, clothing and metal and plastic fragments into the tissue causing secondary infections.'
There are at least 85 million and possibly 100 million unexploded mines scattered over 62 countries, including millions laid during the Cold War between East and West Germany and an estimated 3 million sown in the former Yugoslavia. About 5 to 10 million mines are produced a year.
Despite successes in the anti- mine campaign - including the UN and a US moratorium on mine exports adopted last year, and commitments by several European Union countries - the prospect of a global ban on the production, export and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines is slim.
The campaign for a global ban ran into difficulties at the UN General Assembly last year, when Britain reserved the right to produce and export high-technology mines with self-destruct mechanisms, which it said should not be classified with the cheap anti-personnel mines.
Britain has mobilised international support to kill hopes of a ban on anti-personnel mines, which officials say 'would be meaningless and amount to a drop in the bucket'.
Britain and other industrialised countries are directing international aid budgets towards mine clearance projects, which benefit British mine clearance companies. Switzerland and Ireland were among the few countries to call for a ban on anti-personnel mines.
Western governments have latched on to the enormous potential profits in mine clearance projects in Third World countries. Money from the European Union humanitarian aid budget, the UN and other agencies is increasingly targeted at these projects, providing lucrative work for people who have left the military in the West.
Before the outcry started from Western humanitarian workers in Third World countries, who see the effects of landmines on innocent civilians, several European countries - not including Britain - were campaigning to export mines to the world's most troubled conflict zones. Italy was the greatest offender.
The Fiat-owned Valsella Meccanotecnica SpA company exported 9 million mines to Iraq in a deal worth dollars 180m ( pounds 120m). Three years after the Gulf war these small plastic mines still find victims among Kurds in northern Iraq. In spite of mine clearing efforts, large tracts of Kuwait are infested with them. Civilians are regularly blown apart by these unmapped mines.
The Valsella company sold 100,000 mines to Indonesia, which is actively suppressing the nationalist movement in East Timor, and another 90,000 went via Paraguay to South Africa. The landmine trade is cloaked in secrecy. It is only through court cases and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the US that information has been put together. Recent enquiries in Parliament have been met with a curt refusal to disclose information on security grounds. Various organisations suggest that Italy has been the source of most mines obtained by Third World countries, along with China, the former Soviet Union, former East Germany and former Czechoslovakia. Belgian mines have been found in Angola, French mines in Iraq and British mines in Afghanistan, Mozambique and Somalia.
These countries say they are not now exporting mines because of the UN moratorium. The companies involved, Daimler Benz in Germany, Fiat in Italy, Thorn EMI in Britain, Bofors in Sweden and Dynamit Nobel in Austria, are switching to higher technology self-destruct mines, according to defence sources, in the belief that they will become the 'mine of choice' after cheaper mines made in the Third World are outlawed.
In yesterday's issue we listed Babcock Energy Limited among British manufacturers of landmines. We now accept that the company has no connection with the manufacture of landmines. We are happy to put the record straight.
(Photograph, graphic and table omitted)
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