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The case against landmines

By Philip C. Winslow

Landmines are an emotive issue. While an international campaign to ban them gathers momentum, some strong pockets of resistance remain.

I came across landmine victims for the first time in Iran in 1988, and then again in Croatia in 1993, in the course of my job as a journalist. At the time, I tended to see them — on their crutches or in their wheelchairs — as general casualties of war and wrote about them, if at all, in the overall context of conflict and regional politics.

Then in late 1993, in cities and villages across Angola, I started meeting them. There were any number to meet — on the streets and in the grim hospital wards. Most appeared to be civilians, the majority seemed to be women, an astonishing number were children. Almost always their story started like this:

“I was on my way to dig cassava...”
“I was going to fetch firewood...”
“I was walking with my mother... ”

As I wrote and broadcast their stories, a pattern started to appear. Here were the victims of a weapon that respected neither civilian status nor the end of a conflict.


Global movement

I was hardly the first to notice. Humanitarian organizations, refugee agencies, ICRC war surgeons and NGOs had already sounded the alarm. Their concern coalesced into a global movement to eliminate a common weapon that had been used and feared for 130 years. Six major groups formed themselves in 1992 into the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement launched a parallel public campaign, with the support of its unique network of National Societies around the world (see main story).

Rae McGrath, a former British Army soldier, was stunned by the effects of landmines as he tried to set up agricultural and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan in 1987.

“We found the remains of a young herder up in the hills,” McGrath said. “He was a kid, and his foot had been blown off... he couldn’t walk away, so he just stayed there and bled to death, and it probably took him a long time.”

McGrath discovered something else. “It became obvious that we were dealing with a different weapon. These things had been used quite literally in their millions and had been randomly laid over huge areas. There was virtually nothing we could do that wasn’t in some way impacted by the presence of the mines... they were basically keeping the war going at a time when it should have been over.” McGrath went on to found the Mines Advisory Group, a British demining charity, and helped coordinate the ICBL’s campaign.

The campaign was driven, McGrath says, by a unity of purpose unique among such movements. “There was no theoretical opposition to arms or any sort of disagreement on what we are aiming at... we had already seen from our joint experiences in the field what the problem was and what the solution should be.”

The end of the Cold War had lifted the curtain on the particular havoc wreaked by landmines. As superpower-backed conflicts in Asia, Africa and Central America wound down and civilians began to return to their land, landmine casualties increased. From Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola and Mozambique, pictures of landmine victims were brought via the television screen into households around the world.

“All the arguments are very clear — you’re able to put them on a piece of A4 paper,” says McGrath. “On top of that, sadly and quite horribly, the images are there for the taking. In a way, the horror of mines has given us the material we need to argue for their eradication.”

International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Over 750 non-governmental organizations in 44 countries have joined together to form the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The campaign brings together NGOs working in such fields as refugees, emergency relief, human rights, the environment, arms control and development, including Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group, Physicians for Human Rights and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

The coalition was formed as a result of the individual experiences of each organization to the tragedies of AP landmines. It is the first time such a wide spectrum of NGOs has worked together towards a common goal – a total ban on AP landmines.

The ICBL works at the national and international levels and has played a pivotal role in galvanizing public opinion and promoting a change of policy among governments towards a total ban, as well as finding support for landmine awareness, clearance and eradication worldwide.

A question of utility

Despite strong public support for the campaign in many countries, a major stumbling block remains the reluctance on the part of some governments — influenced by their military who see the removal of any weapon from the arsenal as a threat — to sign on to a total ban.

Some military tacticians continue to argue that anti-personnel mines are useful as a “force multiplier” and in protecting friendly troops. Others claim that “smart” mines, i.e. those designed to switch themselves off or self-destruct, are essential.

Not all military experts buy the argument, however, and an open rift has appeared in military thinking. Many former combat soldiers now say that anti-personnel mines are more trouble than they’re worth. In 1996, military experts from 19 countries signed on to an ICRC policy statement based on an independent study that concluded that mines were of “limited military utility”.

Then, a group of 15 retired top-ranking US officers publicly asked President Bill Clinton to support a total ban, saying it was both humane and militarily responsible.

“Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, anti-personnel landmines are not essential,” the retired officers declared in a full-page ad in The New York Times.

Even as far back as 1862, when landmines were widely used in the US Civil War, soldiers were horrified by a weapon that, once buried, was likely to strike anyone, friend or foe, soldier or civilian. Soldiers who fought in Korea told of casualties as they crawled through their own minefields. One former US Marine, Gen. Alfred Gray, Jr., in 1993 summed up his view:

“We kill more Americans with our mines than we do anybody else... What the hell is the use of sowing all this (airborne scatterable mines) if you’re going to move through it next week or next month?... I know of no situation in the Korean War, nor in the five years I served in South-East Asia, nor in Panama, nor in Desert Shield-Desert Storm where our use of mine warfare truly channelized the enemy and brought them into a destructive pattern...”

The debate over military utility is far from over in many countries, and an unequivocal treaty and tough enforcement battles lie ahead, causing Rae McGrath to warn campaigners against complacency.

“How can we say it’s a successful campaign when (on) a Tuesday in April there’s not a single less person being blown up than there was a year ago or five years ago?” he said.


Philip C. Winslow
Philip C. Winslow is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War.

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