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Efforts to Ban Landmines Making Progress - 2004-05-01

Years after fighting has stopped and soldiers return from the front lines, landmines continue to cripple and kill. An international effort to ban landmines has encouraged scores of countries to stop using them as weapons and destroy their stockpiles. However, they remain a threat to civilians in the most heavily mined countries in the world. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on efforts to eradicate this weapon, what countries still produce them and why.

The sound of mine detectors is heard across Afghanistan. They are the main tool of nearly two thousand intrepid Afghan de-miners, currently reclaiming land throughout their mountainous homeland. But they still have a lot of work to do. After two decades of war, Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Most were laid by Soviet forces in the 1980s and later by Afghans during the civil strive of the 1990s.

Ironically, de-mining land provides one of the biggest boosts to the Afghan economy. Kurt Chesko works with many of the Afghan de-miners and is currently a program officer at the US office of the HALO trust -- a mine-clearing charity. He says that for many Afghans, limited job opportunities lead them to de-mining, as well as another reason. “A lot of them were fighters throughout the conflict in Afghanistan and now they have a chance to actually to be a part of the clearance and rehabilitation efforts in their country.”

Mr. Chesko describes de-mining as a slow, tedious, painstaking process. On relatively flat terrain, a de-miner can clear 20 to 50 square meters in a day. For every hour taken to lay mines, approximately 100 will be spent lifting and disarming them. Just a single landmine can render arable land useless or villages uninhabitable until the area is cleared. The economic loss often adds to the human tragedy. One square kilometer of fertile land put out of use by mines costs as much as one-million dollars annually in lost crops. Removing landmines is a priority for the country's reconstruction. “Landmine clearance is an absolute necessity to jump-start the economies of these war-torn countries,” says Mr. Chesko. “After landmine clearance has occurred, internally displaced people can return to their homes. They can re-plant their fields. They can safely attend school, and transportation routes are open, allowing trade between villages to open up. Also aid agencies can get into areas that they had not been able to access before.”

With a number of international and local organizations vigorously supporting de-mining operations, progress in Afghanistan has been substantial. Five years ago, about 300 Afghans were killed or maimed by land mines each month. Today, the number killed or injured is around 100 a month -- a number still too high, says Afghan Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad. He says a decade ago, Afghanistan had nearly 30 million land mines scattered across its territory. Now about eight million remain. “At one point there was one mine for each Afghan citizen. Right now, after the reduction of this number, there is at least one mine for each Afghan family. These mines are from various sources and manufacturers, including Soviet, Chinese, Pakistani and American. We even have wooden mines in Afghanistan that are very difficult to detect.”

Mr. Jawad says the most common landmine in Afghanistan is the small, colorful butterfly type. This mine targets civilians as well as combatants. “Butterfly mines were one of the most dangerous types of mine used by Afghanistan -- they were primarily used by the Soviet Union and the red army. They were scattered with helicopters along the refugee routes that Afghans used to escape to Iran, Pakistan and other places. These mines look like toys and in many instances kids will pick them up. Some of them look like pocket knifes and other useful things so kids might find them interesting or useful.”

The risks landmines pose has encouraged an international movement to ban them. Liz Bernstein is a spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a network of more than one-thousand-400 non-governmental organizations in 90 countries that wants to achieve a total world-wide ban on the weapons. “Landmines are indiscriminate weapons. They don't tell the difference between the footsteps of a soldier or those of those of a child or a woman tending grazing sheep. They stay in the ground so long after conflicts are over. So when peace accords are signed and solders are returning to barracks and getting on with lives, they take home their guns and other weapons, but this does not happen with anti-personnel mines. They lay in the ground and they continue to claim lives.”

Efforts to ban landmines culminated in the 1997 Ottawa Convention -- an international treaty which bans the use, production, stockpiling and the sale of the weapons. Since the convention was signed, the number of countries producing landmines has dropped from 55 to only a dozen. The 141 countries that belong to the convention have voluntarily destroyed more than 30 million of them.

But analysts point out that over 200 million landmines are still thought to be stockpiled. Most are held by countries that have declined to sign the treaty. China alone is sitting on about 100 million landmines, almost half the total stockpile. Russia has an estimated 50 million, while the United States has at least 10 million. These countries, along with India, Pakistan and some Southeast Asian nations have not signed the Ottawa Convention. And the Bush administration's new landmine policy indicates it will not be signing in the near future.

Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield says that the US military will stop using low-tech conventional mines by 2010 while greatly increasing spending on mine clearing. But it will remain outside the Ottawa Convention. Mr. Bloomfield says US troops are especially vulnerable because of global military commitments. “The United States has hundreds of thousands of troops who in any given year are outside the United States in over one hundred countries. You can point to a lot of signatures in Ottawa, but you will not point to very many, if any, that have that kind of national security role in the world. The US military say there are tactical situations when US forces might be isolated or trying to protect a population where they feel the lives of their troops or the lives of the people they are defending could be saved only by use of these kind of munitions.”

Mr. Bloomfield adds US military forces only employ what are known as "smart mines" that self-destruct in hours or days. These differ from ones that remain lethal for decades, such as the ‘butterfly’ type.

However, the decision has drawn criticism from many anti-mine activists. Liz Bernstein of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines says US policy stands in stark contrast to an emerging international norm against landmines. Every NATO country except the United States has joined the Ottawa convention. In 1994, three years before the convention was created, the United States was the first country to call for the "eventual elimination" of all landmines. Ms. Bernstein believes that many countries look to the United States as a role model on international standards. “It is disappointing because the United States had been adhering to the convention without joining it,” she says. “It has adhered to many of its provisions. The United States has not used anti-personnel mines since the first Gulf War. It has not traded or produced them, and has contributed enormously to mine action and victim assistance. But the statement that it won't join does send a signal that it is not important and that it must retain landmines for future use. that is the wrong message when the rest of the world has joined together to tackle this problem.” Landmine stockpiles continue to be destroyed. Turkmenistan recently demolished a significant number. But landmines also continue to be used, especially on frontiers -- nearly one million have been dropped on the Pakistan-India border in the last three years. At a recent demonstration in the dusty eastern Afghan town of Khost, land mine victims implored what they called the big powers, such as America and China, to join the Ottawa Convention and to eradicate the "hidden enemy."