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World's Nations Edging Toward Land Mine Ban

In 1984, while spending a junior year abroad in Israel, Jerry White and two American friends went hiking in the northern part of the country.

"Suddenly there was an explosion," recalls Mr. White. He lost one foot and part of his other leg. White and his friends hadn't realized they had camped in the middle of a minefield left over from the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Recently he and another American civilian, Ken Rutherford, who also had been injured by land mines, founded the Land Mine Survivors Network. The group wants to bring American resources - from better shoes to vocational training - to other countries infested with land mines.

Theirs is one of many groups meeting in Geneva this week to push for a ban on antipersonnel (AP) land mines while governments work to revise the United Nations Conference on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Sixty-four countries have a land-mine problem, according the UN. And while a total ban hasn't been on the negotiating agenda since governments first met to revise the convention in Vienna last October, the idea has been gaining momentum for several months. Thirty-four governments, more than 400 organizations, and religious leaders from the pope to the Dalai Lama now support a total ban.

The huge international lobbying effort to ban land mines finally may be yielding results. "Since 1991, the amount of lobbying by NGOs [nongovernment organizations], the International Federation [of the International Red Cross], and the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] has moved from a ... subject only technicians were interested in to something that has moved the world," says Peter Walker, director of disaster and refugees policy for the International Federation of the Red Cross. "I think you're seeing ... that public opinion is driving governments faster than the review process," he says.

After this conference - which began April 22 and ends today - delegates expect to return home with stricter regulations regarding the production, sale, and use of antipersonnel land mines.

Measures will include technical assistance for clearing the mines, eliminating mines that are nondetectable, limiting exports, and prohibiting their use in internal conflicts within a country.

According to the UN, 110 million land mines are scattered in 64 countries. They kill and maim 20,000 civilians each year, hamper agriculture, endanger returning refugees, and cause disabling injuries long after wars have ended.

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"After a conflict is done, the scourge of land mines continues," says Chris Moon, a former British soldier and de-miner who lost a hand and foot to a land mine in Mozambique. "But it's a solvable problem. It is feasible to have a ban on land mines [given] the number of nations that say they would support one."

Rudiger Hartmann, a member of the German delegation, says that the German government will renounce the use of antipersonnel land mines and will follow a ban policy no matter the outcome of the review conference.

Australia has also jumped onto the ban bandwagon this week. "Australia has decided to support a global ban on the use, transfer, production, and stockpiling of antipersonnel land mines," says Ronald Walker, Australia's permanent representative to the UN.

Some experts are questioning the military value of antipersonnel mines, adding more steam to the ban movement.

"The limited military utility of AP mines is far outweighed by the appalling humanitarian consequences of their use in actual conflicts," writes retired Brig. Patrick Blagden in a recently published study by the ICRC.

Recently several high-ranking military officers, including retired American Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, signed an open letter to President Clinton calling for an immediate and total ban.

"The open letter to President Clinton gives the ban movement a devastating argument to use. I think this debate is essentially over," says Caleb Rossiter, director of Demilitarization for Democracy, a Washington-based research group.

"We are going to reach an agreement here that may not go as far as the US would have gone, but it will provide significant humanitarian protection," says Michael Matheson, deputy legal adviser to the US State Department and head of the American delegation.

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