Leading Article: Digging in again on a moral minefield

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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE in the world today an elderly woman gathering firewood or a child herding animals will step on a little piece of plastic, cleverly disguised to look like a rock or a small piece of wood. As the anti-personnel mine explodes it will rip apart flesh and bone in a blinding flash. If it is a butterfly mine, the victim's footfall will send it springing into the air where it will explode at groin level causing massive internal injuries.

About 140 innocent civilians are maimed in this way every week, often in countries where conflicts have long ended. The proliferation of mines the size of tennis balls, means that wars effectively continue for civilians long after armies have packed up and gone home.

Removing the mines is an exceedingly dangerous and expensive task. There are said to be between 75 and 100 million anti-personnel devices scattered worldwide, many of them unmapped. This explains the need for a global ban on the production, stockpiling and export of these hideous weapons. The entire United Nations organisation, from the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, down, supports such a move.

A campaign for a ban was launched by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in 1991 and now includes more than 100 humanitarian organisations. Outlawing anti-personnel mines would make it a crime against humanity to scatter such devices indiscriminately from the air as the Russians did in Afghanistan. It would prevent the use of mines as terror weapons to 'ethnically cleanse' territory as has occurred in Bosnia.

Yet Britain is standing in the way of international action, even though it has not exported mines for several years. During recent talks to review the UN's Inhumane Weapons Convention, the Government effectively quashed moves to impose a ban. Ministers seem more intent on nurturing a potentially lucrative market for the next generation of hi-tech mines.

Britain proved itself similarly reluctant to co-operate when the UN General Assembly last year imposed a moratorium on exports of anti- personnel mines. Ministers agreed only on the understanding that the temporary ban did not apply to the trade in hi-tech 'self-destructing' mines which are supposed to blow up after a set period in the ground.

The Government offers unimpressive arguments for its obstructive behaviour. It claims that if Britain does not supply mines the trade will merely be taken over by other countries. The same argument led to the sale of arms to Iraq. It is equally fraudulent in this case. Britain has only one morally defensible choice: to ban these cruel weapons.