Land-mines are everyone's enemy

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The Independent Online
It is time that Britain, which has been a leader in restricting the trade in anti-personnel mines, set a long-term goal of establishing an international ban on this weapon. The major military powers can probably live without weapons whose misuse claims up to 26,000 victims a year, the majority of them civilians. There are, according to the UN, about 110 million of these mines scattered in 64 countries. Tough action must be taken by countries such as Britain, with a commitment to humanitarianism.

The call for a ban comes not simply from peace campaigners. At the weekend, General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reported to have said that he is now inclined to support a total ban on anti-personnel land-mines. His statement echoed the view of many countries and the Red Cross.

Until now the US and the UK have taken a more measured approach by halting exports and seeking to strengthen legal controls regulating the use of mines. But this may not be enough to galvanise international action to deal effectively with a problem that worsens by the day.

Mines continue to be laid in large numbers. About half of those injured die of their injuries, while most of the survivors lose one or more limbs. In most of the conflict areas, specialised treatment and artificial limbs are not available. The casualties become a burden on their families. Whole communities are prevented from working their agricultural land.

But the strongest case against these weapons lies in their indiscriminate nature. The overwhelming majority of them remain in place long after their military purpose is over: most victims are in the end non-combatants, placing these weapons in a class apart from other conventional weapons.

There is an ongoing review of the UN Convention, which sets rules on the use of mines. One proposal is to allow the use only of mines that self-destruct within a set period after being laid. Another is to permit only mines that can be detected by available mine-clearing technologies.

A number of the 57 parties to the convention, Britain among them, believe that it is better to be pragmatic and get the many non-members to sign up to the limits set out by the convention than to call for a total ban. However, a clarion call for an outright ban, as a stated long-term objective, may bring in support for the more limited measures and lead to a speedier advance in the laws of armed conflict.

The major military powers must take the lead, as they have done on export moratoria, if they are to reduce the awful consequences of this weapon's misuse.

Col Terence Taylor is assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. These are his personal views.