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A Hidden Threat

HUMAN rights violation of global scope is being perpetrated in Somalia, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, El Salvador, and many other places. But it has, quite literally, been hidden beneath the surface, though its effects are all too evident.

The violation is the proliferation of land mines in parts of the world beset by regional or ethnic conflict over the past decade. The mines remain a threat to civilians long after their military purpose has passed.

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A Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi Kurdistan, published in October, reports that 12 to 20 casualties are caused by mines each week in that region. Physicians for Human Rights just put out a report on land mines in northern Somalia. Thousands have been cleared away by authorities in Somaliland (the northern region that has declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia), but countless thousands remain buried. Their presence not only causes death and injury (mostly to children) but also blocks econ omic normalization and the repatriation of refugees.

Efforts to remove mines are crucial. But even when ample funds and international resources are applied, as in Cambodia, it's a slow job. Kuwait's desert terrain is relatively easy to clear of mines, but the work goes on, nearly two years after Iraqi invaders were repulsed.

Beyond mine clearing, the world needs legal restraints to limit the trade in mines. The United States set an example in October when Congress passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois, that put a one-year moratorium on the export of US-made mines.

The United Nations has a protocol on land mines that sets rules for their use: Mine fields must be mapped, and they must be directed against military targets. The protocol, however, has been a dead letter.

Next April, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will hold a conference to review the protocol. The end of 1993 will mark 10 years since the land-mines agreement was to have taken effect.

Human Rights Watch hopes to work through the ICRC conference and other means to replace the old agreement with an international ban on the production, sale, and use of land mines.

That won't be easy, but it is well worth a try. With a ban in place, rights activists would at least have a better means of publicly embarrassing those who persist in using, or selling, these inhumane, indiscriminate weapons.

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