The signing ceremony of the anti-personnel landmine treaty in Ottawa last December was attended by a group of landmine victims - many of them amputees in wheelchairs or on crutches. Their presence in the conference hall provided a macabre reminder of the human toll of landmines.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, anti-personnel landmines kill or maim about 26,000 people every year - three victims an hour or 500 per week. The majority of these victims are innocent non-combatant civilians, mostly women and children, who wander into unmarked minefields long after wars have ended. Many of them are blown to smithereens or lose their limbs as they set off mines while grazing their cattle, tilling their land, collecting firewood, or playing in mine-infested areas. Current estimates put the worldwide number of mine-related amputees at around one-quarter of a million.
A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch highlights the human suffering resulting from the predominant pattern of landmine abuse, saying: ‘They (landmines) have shifted from being primarily a defensive, tactical battlefield weapon to an offensive, strategic weapon often aimed deliberately at civilians in order to empty territory, destroy food sources, create refugee flows or simply spread terror.’
Minefields have transformed large tracts of fertile cropland into unuseable dead zones leading, in the process, to major socio-economic dislocations as whole farming communities are displaced. As such, mines not only constitute a heavy drag on the economies of many poor countries but also pose a serious obstacle stunting their process of development and threatening their food security.
Canadian minister for external affairs Lloyd Axworthy told the Ottawa conference that agricultural production could increase by as much as one-third in Angola and Cambodia and could double in Afghanistan if farmland was cleared of landmines and put back into agricultural production.
Most of the countries suffering today from mine-infestation are African or Muslim. During the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Red Army adopted a carefully calibrated strategy designed to depopulate large areas and terrorize civilians. The use of landmines, including those disguised as toys to attract children, was a cornerstone of that strategy. Most of the landmines laid by the Soviets in Afghanistan are still buried in the ground.
In the Middle East, the millions of mines laid during the past half-century of zionist expansionism remain a major culprit claiming the lives of thousands of innocent civilians in the Arab ‘cordon States’ - that is those surrounding Israel (Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon). Estimates place the number of mines that remain buried in the Egyptian Sinai Desert alone at more than 20 million.
It should be pointed out that banning landmines does not necessarily mean humanity has arrived at the sunny uplands of the total extirpation of the mines’ scourge. The mere signing of the Ottawa Convention is not in and of itself sufficient to save the thousands of innocent lives and limbs of landmine victims.
Attaining such an objective requires an effective de-mining strategy backed by adequate resources. Moreover, victim assistance requires more than the mere provision of false limbs or medical care. Special attention needs to be paid to channelling a portion of the assistance into the social and economic rehabilitation of victims, their re-integration into communities, and dealing with the traumatic psychological effects of their injuries.
Following the signing of the Ottawa treaty, attention was directed at the enormous and costly task of de-mining old battlefields in some 70 countries, where an estimated 110 million mines are believed to remain buried. However, the signatories have demonstrated a feeble willingness to shoulder the exorbitant burdens and costs of the monumental tasks of mine clearance and victim assistance that lie ahead. Axworthy told reporters that the conference saw pledges of $500 million for these tasks. Such an amount would cover only a small portion of the estimated $30 billion needed to clear existing landmines.
Without real financial teeth, the Ottawa Convention will remain a shell. De-mining is a dangerous, costly and painstaking undertaking where money, not mere empty promises and moral crusades, makes a real difference. Each buried anti-personnel landmine, one of the cheapest and easiest weapon systems to produce, costs between $300 and $1,000 to deactivate, depending on the type of device and nature of terrain involved.
De-mining operations mainly utilize low-tech, unsophisticated tools. A de-miner prods the ground slowly with a stick or metal rod to locate the mine before excavating it with hand tools. Modern de-mining technologies have low clearance rates. For instance, mechanized mine-sweepers are useful mainly for clearing flat minefields. New electronic devices such as infrared, computerized radar or robotic systems require more testing and there is ample evidence that their clearance rate is low.
De-mining uneven terrain, forests, farmland, and residential areas with a high rate of clearance still requires manpower. Yet the labour-intensive nature of de-mining could prove to be its foremost economic advantage. De-mining operations would create employment opportunities for thousands of people, especially demobilized soldiers and fighters, in poor, mine-infested countries.
An effective and meaningful de-mining strategy should also devote resources to educational programmes designed to help victims acquire skills that enable them to re-integrat into the productive sectors of their societies.
Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998