The Ottawa Convention is a minefield in itself

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AMID THE punditry surrounding the first anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, assertions have been made that the international landmines ban to which she lent her very public support is something of a sham. This was, at least, the view taken by John Sweeney in his documentary, Diana: The Wrong Crusade?, screened on Wednesday on Channel 4, in which the message was clear: don't worry about banning the sale of mines, just try to clear the minefields.

It is hardly surprising that the Princess's involvement in the anti- landmines campaign, which led to the signing of the Ottawa Convention last December, should come under renewed scrutiny in the present climate. But perhaps the forest is obscured by the trees. The fact remains that mines are being laid 25 times faster than they can be cleared, meaning that no amount of mine clearance will adequately address the long-term problem in the absence of an unambiguous and properly enforced prohibition on their use in future conflicts. Clearance is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff; the ban ought to be the guard-rail at its edge.

Unfortunately, it isn't, and the convention itself warrants closer examination. For all the work done by Diana, the non-governmental organisations and various pressure groups, their pride in what has been achieved is laced with a palpable sense of disillusionment. Simply, this is because the convention still falls a long way short of securing an effective prohibition on the weapons it sets out to banish. Contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement, mines will continue to be manufactured and deployed by many of the 131 countries that have so far put their names to the ban, even by those that have rushed to incorporate its provisions into their national law.

As usual, the devil is in the detail. Contrary to public perception, the only mines explicitly outlawed by the treaty are the anti-personnel variety, designed to explode on contact with a human being. Mines loosely defined as "anti-vehicle" are categorically excluded from the ban. Since anti-tank mines are not specifically designed to detonate on contact with people, the convention accepts as a given that they therefore do not contribute to civilian loss of life.

The experience of mine-clearance organisations, though, leads to a starkly different conclusion. According to the Cumbria-based Mines Advisory Group, who run de-mining programmes in Cambodia, Laos, Angola and Iraqi Kurdistan, the triggering mechanisms used in anti-vehicle mines are easily and frequently activated by people; a footstep or mere disturbance of the undergrowth around one may cause it to detonate. In this respect, such mines often operate in a similar fashion to anti-personnel mines - creating minefields rigged with even more explosive power.

The treaty also goes on to legitimise anti-vehicle mines that are equipped with "anti-handling devices" (booby traps, to the rest of us). These explosives are designed to "take out" anyone who disturbs or tries to remove the mine. The fact that no distinction can be made between enemy soldiers and humanitarian de-miners seems to have been ignored, a little omission to which mine- clearance organisations worldwide have responded with disgust.

And other weapons - most notably cluster bombs, which are scattered hundreds, even thousands at a time over large areas - also result in the creation of minefields. In Laos alone, there are reckoned to be more than a hundred million of these tennis-ball-sized "bomblets" on the ground, still waiting to explode, 25 years after the nine-year US saturation bombing came to an end (by contrast, the estimated total number of landmines in place around the world is 110 million). Around one in three failed to detonate on impact, and they are routinely stepped on or picked up by children, usually with fatal consequences. They have been used more recently in former-Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. Since the Gulf War, during which they yielded a similar failure rate, cluster bombs have also been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in both Iraq and Kuwait - again, mainly among children. These indiscriminate weapons are responsible for a scourge every bit as nasty as landmines, yet they too remain outside the scope of the convention.

So, even though a weapon may possess the attributes of an anti-personnel mine, according to the Ottawa Convention, it is not one. Why? Because the convention defines mines solely by what they are designed to do, rather than what they may actually do once in place. By leaving the nuts and bolts of weapons-classification to arms manufacturers in this way (and with them, armies and governments), the convention hands over a measure of discretion which betrays the imperatives that led to its very inception. And manufacturers have wasted no time in seizing on this to continue their malign trade: Hunting Engineering, for example, made spectacular efforts (with the collusion of the political establishment, which delayed the Landmines Act on its account) to protect its JP-233 combined-effects munition - which parachutes 215 anti-personnel mines onto the ground after first releasing a load of cluster bombs - from the ban. Happily, it failed - but only just.

Our Government has set some unwholesome precedents, particularly the shabby insertion of an "exemption" in the Landmines Act which permits British soldiers to co-operate in - even plan and direct - mine-laying with forces of a non-signatory to the treaty, so long as our chaps refrain from actually putting the mines in the ground. Perhaps, given how the convention stacks up, Sweeney and the critics are right to be sceptical about it. There is no doubt that it is a substantially flawed agreement.

But de-mining on its own will scarcely bring about the results its advocates hope for. The convention urges countries responsible for supplying anti- personnel mines to fund and organise clearance, but fails to set out any such obligation or secure finance for any kind of common fund, so de-miners are left to the caprice of donations and sponsorship.

Still, whatever eventual impact the convention may (or may not) have on the ground, it should be remembered that, just a few years ago, a ban on landmines was regarded as an impossibility. The current arrangements are far from satisfactory, but also far from final.

The first review conference takes place in five years. I, for one, shall be watching with interest.

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