Gingerly Steps Toward Demining the Globe
Nations are slowly joining the International Committee for the Red Cross in seeking a worldwide ban on land mines, at least 85 million of which are scattered across five continents. New methods are lowering the cost of removal.
PAARDEFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA
DUSTY, a seven-year-old Border Collie, strides confidently past three filters impregnated with different explosives.
She shows special interest in a fourth sample, takes a closer sniff, circles it three times, and then sits down and wags her tail. The dog has been trained to detect TNT, which the last filter had been permeated with.
``She is an old lady, but she is brilliant,'' says Vernon Joynt, a South African arms designer who is now channeling his energy toward the detection and lifting of antipersonnel land mines.
Mr. Joynt, managing director of the South African company Mechem, uses dogs to help detect land mines. Mechem takes air samples from areas suspected of containing mines, using protected vehicles with suction pipes that run just off the ground. The dogs then sniff the filters from the pipes to test for explosives.
The method, which is now deployed in the lifting of mines in Mozambique, holds the promise of making mine clearance a safer, quicker, and less expensive task. In fact, demining is becoming a profitable alternative to manufacturing the explosives.
Mechem has just landed $3.5 million in contracts to remove some of the estimated 2 million mines that block Mozambique's major highways and slow the repatriation of about 3.5 million refugees ahead of that country's first democratic elections scheduled for Oct. 27.
The contract was awarded by the multinational corporation, Lonrho, which has economic interests in Mozambique. Lonrho has in turn been contracted with UNOMOZ, the UN operation overseeing Mozambique's elections.
South Africa, which declared a ban on the exports of mines two months ago, is now devoting its expertise to detecting and lifting the deadly weapons that kill and maim thousands of civilians around the world each year.
Beyond 1980 convention
That effort represents a small step forward in the global campaign of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for a worldwide ban on all land mines and inhumane weapons - including blinding weapons such as lasers - in line with the 1980 Land Mines Protocol of the UN United Nations Weapons Convention.
The 1980 protocol - which provides for restrictions on the use of mines, invisible shrapnel, and incendiary devices such as napalm - has failed to halt the escalation in civilian mine casualties. Thus, the ICRC-led international campaign - launched at an international conference in Montreux, Switzerland a year ago - is running into trouble.
The major obstructions, civil-rights advocates say, are from countries with vested interests in mine production and that are reluctant to commit the massive funds necessary for mine clearance.
The ICRC describes the socioeconomic, medical, and environmental impact of mines as a global catastrophe. Yet the humanitarian problem continues with the collaboration of the world's major nations.
``We are trying to convince governments to extend the moratorium on mine exports to one on production,'' says Raphael Olaya, ICRC delegate in South Africa on international humanitarian law.
``We are working with ICRC committees, local Red Cross committees, and with governments to increase awareness of the problem and to get governments to sign the 1980 UN Convention,'' Mr. Olaya says. ``But it is a difficult task because mines are cheap and effective, and clearing them is an extremely costly task.
``Our problem is that they are indiscriminate and civilians get hurt years after conflicts have ended.''
The ICRC estimates that between 85 million and 100 million unexploded mines are scattered in 62 countries worldwide, and a further 100 million mines lie in stockpiles.
The worst-affected countries - Angola, Cambodia, and Afghanistan - together account for about 25 million unexploded mines. Afghanistan has had between 350,000 and 500,000 casualties from land mines; Angola and Cambodia have more than 56,000 amputees - the majority women and children. (A mine for every Cambodian, right.)
In Africa, the worst-affected continent, there are an estimated 18 million to 30 million mines. Among the countries most-laden with mines - apart from Angola - are some of the world's poorest: Mozambique, Somalia, and Uganda. North America and Australia are the only continents not affected by the scourge of land mines.
According to Handicap International, a humanitarian group in France, there have been more than 1 million casualties from mines in the past 15 years: At least 800,000 people have died, and more than 400,000 have been maimed.
The ICRC cites more than 150 identifiable models of land mines produced by more than 60 companies and government agencies in at least 37 countries.
In recent years the major producers have been Italy, China, and Russia - with the United States not far behind.
The US manufactures one of the deadliest of all mine devices - the 3.5-pound Claymore used in the Korean and Vietnam wars, which is designed to cause multiple casualties. It is detonated by a trip-wire and then fires 700 steel balls sideways in a fan-shaped arc for 165 feet and reaching a height of 10 to 15 feet.
Two years ago, the US Congress passed a law that imposed a moratorium on US exports of land mines. Last year, the moratorium was extended to the end of 1996. But the move has had little impact on civilian mine casualties.
Four countries - the US, Germany, Italy, and South Africa - have imposed moratoriums on the export of land mines. The G-7 industrialized nations and Russia have given their backing to the campaign for a worldwide ban on such exports.
But arms experts point out that many arms deals are concluded on the black market, making the monitoring of arms bans problematic.
Addressing the 49th session of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 26, President Clinton urged member states to join the US in concluding an agreement to reduce the number and availability of the estimated 85 million deployed antipersonnel mines.