Landmines: more deadly than the plague


August 28 is National Landmines Day. One in three nations has been mined, and up to 70 people a day are being killed as a result of landmines. The number of individuals maimed or killed by landmines in peacetime is as high as 2500 per month. For every survivor, two die, and in some countries 75% of survivors require amputation.

Various reports by the US State Department, Human Rights Watch and others suggest that 100-400 million mines are scattered throughout 73 or more countries. Another 100-200 million are stockpiled in military arsenals.

These shocking statistics were reported to a June 22 public meeting organised by the International Landmines Committee in Adelaide. The panel of speakers included Sister Patricia Pak Poy, Australian coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and Drs Darryl Teague and Adrian von der Borch from the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, who have worked extensively in Cambodia assisting the victims of landmine explosions.

The meeting called for the total banning of landmine use, production and stockpiling. BRUCE GRAY outlines the problem.

Landmines are a little-noted environmental catastrophe that has reached pandemic proportions. Even US State Department officials say that landmines may be the most toxic and widespread pollution facing humankind.

While these views might, at first glance, seem somewhat exaggerated, the issue of uncleared landmines is of major importance in over a third of the world's countries.

This crisis is killing or injuring 70 or more people a day, and a significant proportion of these are children.

The effects of landmines can be insidious and long-lasting. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), in France, mines left from World War I are still causing casualties. In Libya, 27% of the total arable land is still inaccessible because of minefields dating back to World War II. In Nicaragua, an estimated total of 160,000 active mines remain scattered over some 150 sites. In the Malvinas Islands, vast areas have been sealed off until a method of dealing with the problem is found.

Jody Williams, a coordinator at the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, criticised world leaders for neglecting the problem of landmines. "They pay scant attention to the small, low-tech, inexpensive, seemingly innocent anti-personnel device — the landmine.

"The landmine explodes only on direct contact. Its range is approximately 50 metres and its killing or maiming capacity does not exceed a handful of people. The detonation of a landmine is not likely to initiate a world war. Cheap and efficient, millions of landmines have been sown throughout the countrysides of dozens of developing countries plagued by internal conflicts or superpower-supported proxy wars.

"Long after peace is declared, the landmine remains, and the war against innocent civilians continues. The landmine is not a smart bomb, does not turn off, wear out or return to the soil. A lethal crop, it lies in wait, underground and unseen, ready to harvest, in fields and villages where it can kill or maim randomly for decades — including the grandchildren of those who laid it."

In a similar vein, a former delegate to the ICRC stated that "mines may be described as fighters that never miss, strike blindly, do not carry weapons openly and go on killing long after hostilities are ended. In short, mines are the greatest violators of international humanitarian law, practising blind terrorism."

Once laid, minefields are almost never adequately fenced, marked and recorded. They are rarely retrieved or recovered, and they last almost indefinitely. Similarly, the majority of the modern mines are largely undetectable and continue to kill and maim over significant periods of time.

Toxic pollution

In addition to the killing, blinding and maiming, mines are a major contributing factor to economic and social impoverishment in countries burdened by landmine pollution. Given the physical and social impact of landmines, they represent a very serious, long-term toxic hazard to human health. Mines must be seen not as a weapon or device of war, but as a form of environmental contamination or toxic pollution.

Landmines are usually classified according to their target type and effect: anti-personnel blast, anti-personnel fragmentation, anti-personnel bounding fragmentation, anti-personnel directional fragmentation and anti-tank.

While it is virtually impossible to produce a definitive list of all the various kinds in existence throughout the world, the Cumbria-based Mines Advisory Group has documented nearly 750 different types of landmines and initiating mechanisms (switches), while the US army's worldwide informational mine guide database includes more than 700 mines and more than 2000 mine-fuse combinations.

This diversity is the result of 96 companies or government agencies in 48 countries having produced more than 346 conventional, hand-laid anti-personnel mine products. Furthermore, both the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights and a US congressional research service report list the top 11 mine manufacturing nations as producing 227 different models: USA 37, Italy 36, the former USSR 31, Sweden 21, Vietnam 18 and Germany 18.

Jody Williams sums up the situation: "A 1993 study by the US State Department estimates ... 10 million in Afghanistan; 9 million in Angola; 4.5 million in Cambodia; 5-10 million in Iraq."

In a World Health Organisation briefing paper, the mines problem in Angola was described as follows: "with an estimate of 9-15 million landmines [one mine, or more, per capita!] all Angola can be considered affected by a special kind of 'aggressive' environmental pollution. Landmines put the population at high risk of accidents: they may be seen as a man-caused, often fatal, and highly disabling endemic disease."

This estimate may itself be conservative. The UNDP's Human Development Report of 1994 states, "In Angola, two decades of civil war have left 20 million landmines in the earth, two for every person in the country. The mines kill 120 Angolans each month".

The risk associated with these devices is extremely high (especially for children). In certain areas of Cambodia the risk is probably as high as 362 deaths and injuries per 100,000 per year. When multiplied by an adult's expected lifespan of 50 or so years, this equates with approximately 18,100 deaths and injuries per 100,000 people over the 50-year period!

This means that nearly one-fifth of the population born in 1992 in the heavily contaminated rural provinces of Cambodia will be killed or injured by mines before they reach 50 years of age if nothing is done to improve the current situation.

Financial costs

The financial costs of mine clearance are equally high. The UN states that the costs, including training, support and logistics, are estimated at between US$300 and US$1000 per mine. Thus it would require, at a minimum, US$33 billion-US$110 billion to clear the 110 million mines already polluting the globe — assuming no more were laid.

Kuwait provides one particularly graphic example of these costs. By 1994, more than 1.6 million of the 7 million or so mines that contaminate the country had been cleared as part of a US$700 million de-mining contract. But the greatest cost so far has been human: 84 explosive ordnance disposal personnel have been killed clearing Kuwait of mines.

Compounding the massive clearance costs are the costs of medical and rehabilitative support for mine victims. The UN estimates that "treatment and rehabilitation costs average US$5000 per victim". This compares with a purchase cost of US$3 for a Chinese Type 72 anti-personnel blast mine, US$5 for a Brazilian APNM AE T1 anti-personnel mine, US$6.70 for a Belgian NR 25 (which sells in lots of 5000), US$6.50 for an Italian VS-50 all-plastic anti-personnel device, US$41 for a modern Valmara 69 bounding fragmentation mine, US$79.29 for the US M18A1 Claymore with its accessories, and US$78 for the most expensive Asian mine, Chartered Industries of Singapore's STM-1 plastic anti-tank mine.

The annual worldwide production of anti-personnel mines is in the order of 96 manufacturers in 48 countries producing 5-10 million anti-personnel mines, generating up to US$200 million in sales.

Even more insidious is the fact that mines are still being laid. Despite the removal of around 100,000 mines worldwide in 1993 (at a cost of US$70 million), at least another 2.5 million mines were laid. This annual clearance deficit of 2.4 million mines adds somewhere around US$1.68 billion annually to the clearing of the world's landmine pollution.

This lethal environmental contaminant is spreading. As Rae McGrath, head of the Mines Advisory Group, noted: "If the poor were being maimed and killed in such numbers by any other means — by disease, floods or earthquake — it would be possible to raise relief funds and organise international action to halt the carnage.

"The truth is that few understand the scale of the problem: the human suffering, rural economic decline and environmental devastation caused by landmines. This is not just a heartless lack of response, it is also foolish negligence because the eventual cost to us all will be far greater than the cost of eradicating the mines."

[The International Campaign to Ban Landmines — Australian Network can be contacted at GPO Box 2602 Adelaide SA 5001. Tel: (08) 210 8172, Fax (08) 231 5175.]