The case against
By Philip C. Winslow
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
“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.
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
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
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
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,
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
“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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