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International effort to stop land mines bears fruit

Mine use is falling and demining programs are rising, a conference noted last week.

As international grass-roots campaigns go, it ranks among the most successful of modern times. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines struck gold in December 1997 when 122 nations agreed to stop using a weapon that killed or maimed an estimated 24,000 people a year, mostly civilians.

But six years after the signing of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, named for the Canadian capital where the accord was inked, activists are finding their path blocked by a number of powerful countries, including the United States and Russia, that want to keep land mines in their arsenals.

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Many of the holdouts are in Asia, where most land mines are manufactured. China has the largest stockpile, estimated at 110 million - around half the world's total holdings, and North and South Korea sit astride one of the world's most fortified borders. Warring parties in Nepal, Burma, and Kashmir continue to plant mines, adding to the millions already scattered around the region.

So has a campaign fed by the global idealism of the 1990s run out of steam?

Not according to activists gathered at last week's meeting of Ottawa signatories in Bangkok. Measured by the number of nations joining - 148 have now signed, of which 136 have ratified - the campaign may be slowing, but the treaty itself is bearing fruit.

Fewer armies are producing or planting mines, and more money is going to demine conflict zones, with fewer lives lost or impaired as a result, say observers. Aid money allocated to landmine clearance and assisting survivors rose 30 percent last year to $309 million. A big chunk of that went to Afghanistan, among the world's most heavily mined countries, which recently joined the Ottawa treaty.

"The campaign makes our task less like that of Sisyphus," says Erik Tollefsen, a mines expert for Norwegian People's Aid, a relief organization that runs demining programs in 11 countries. "Even those that haven't joined [the treaty] are not using many mines because there are severe political consequences to being caught in the act."

Nonetheless, at least six countries have used land mines over the past year, including Iraqi forces during the US-led invasion. (Iraq is already heavily mined from past conflicts). This is, however, half the number reported two years ago, part of a steady fall since the mid-1990s.

Tensions over Kashmir last year led India and Pakistan to plant more mines along their borders. Both countries say they demined the border region after the political temperature cooled, although experts say this is often poorly executed. Another hot spot is Burma, where both the military government and armed rebels sow land mines.

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China, like many nations resisting the ban, says its military imperatives must take precedence, though a Chinese envoy, Fu Cong, told the Bangkok meeting that China was "working in the same direction as all states present here.... Although China is not a party to the Ottawa Convention, we endorse and share its objective."

Some listeners took comfort in this statement, noting that China no longer exports land mines and has in recent years sponsored de-mining efforts in several countries. "I take heart in seeing how countries are responding to international pressure. China sent an observer (to Bangkok) and this is a sign of progress," says Jody Williams, a US activist who shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize with other ICBL members.

But to others, it was another sign of how a global campaign built on community activism is stymied by Asia's top-down political systems, particularly under communist rulers. Despite the continued human toll exacted by mines and unexploded ordnance after decades of war, neither Laos nor Vietnam has joined the ban.

"In other countries that are more democratic (than China), civil society takes the lead and presses the leaders to act. Ultimately, even if the military is opposed, the leaders will take a political decision," says Yukie Osa, a Tokyo-based researcher on Chinese landmine usage.

Unusually, the Ottawa convention relies on nongovernmental groups to check that signatories are following the ban and sticking to deadlines for destroying stockpiles. Only one country, Turkmenistan, has so far been accused of breaching the rules by retaining 70,000 land mines for training purposes, far more than the ICBL says is justified.

For the US, the primary argument cited for retaining an estimated 10.4 million mines is Korea, where both North and South have laid mines along their border. Some observers have said, however, that another reason may be Pentagon opposition to opening the door to civilian involvement in deciding what weapons will or won't be used.

Although the US reserves the right to produce antipersonnel land mines, it has not done so since 1997. It still produces anti-vehicle mines, however. While the US has cut funding for international demining programs in recent years, it remains the world's largest single donor.

Experts say it will take at least a decade to demine Afghanistan. Returning to their land after years of conflict, at least 10 Afghans are killed or injured a day by mines, and clearance work is being hampered by attacks on aid agencies.