At Jalalabad hospital
That afternoon I visited the hospital in Jalalabad. The decrepit surgical facilities had recently been taken over by the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mandate includes the care of war-wounded. Their half-dozen staff were the only foreigners remaining in Jalalabad. The ICRC Surgical Coordinator, a British surgeon named Robin Coupland, had flown in the day before; I accompanied him and the resident surgeon on a ward round. Over half the admissions at the hospital were mine injuries; most were non-combatants; many were children. This was a pattern, Mr Coupland said, that repeated itself at ICRC hospitals and rehabilitation centres worldwide. Over the years in all these countries there had been a continuing increase in the proportion of mine injuries over every other kind. Existing medical facilities were overwhelmed with an influx of mine victims. Each spring brought a further surge as farmers returned to their fields and pastoralists to their grazing grounds.
Half a dozen of the patients in the hospital at Jalalabad were young boys, goatherds and shepherds who had been injured clearing pasture for their livestock. One of them explained that he had been trying to cut the tripwire of a POM-Z when the detonator went off. The mine itself remained intact, so the damage was limited: he lost only two fingers of his hand. With the Afghan doctor interpreting for me, I asked the boy if he would try to defuse a mine again.
“Of course,” he said, “All the boys do it. We’re nomads. We do it all the time.”
“Mines,” said Mr Coupland as we elbowed our way through the crowds of patients, “are designed to create a complex medical problem. They’re designed to make work for doctors. Of all casualties that survive to hospital they cause the messiest wounds, and they make corresponding demands on the time and skills of surgeons.”
“Amputation after a mine injury isn’t straightforward,” he continued. “The blast tends to go up inside the leg, fill it with dirt and shred the muscle, so it has to be amputated higher up.”
There is an analogy between the work of surgeons like Mr Coupland and the work of mine clearers: surgeons have to clear the fatal debris from the bodies of their patients as the mine clearers clear the land.
“I feel pleased as a surgeon if I get the stump closed,” Mr Coupland continued, “But for the patient the problem is just beginning. They have to get to somewhere they can have a prosthesis fitted and then learn to walk again.”
As with mine detection, prosthetic technique has struggled to keep up with the gruesome effects of weapons technology; and the cost of it, as with mine detection, is hundreds of times the cost of the mine itself. It is another case of the multiplier effect. To put a total price on the impact of mines on civilian life, adding the expense of medical services and rehabilitation to the cost of demining, would produce a figure still higher than the UN estimate of $1,000 a mine. It would be six or seven times that, more than a thousand times what a mine costs to make .
In Jelalabad that morning a woman had been admitted to the hospital who had lost half her face to a bounding mine, the kind that leaps from the ground before exploding. Her brain was full of shrapnel. Such patients gave a terrible meaning to that phrase of the arms manufacturers, maim not kill.
“When you tread on a blast mine,” said Mr Coupland, “losing a leg is the simplest thing that happens. Severe damage to the head and eyes and genitals is also common.”
“There are some things,” he added as we left the ward, “that are simply unacceptable.”
The birth of the campaign to ban landmines
In international law the use of mines is governed, in principle, by a 1980 UN Convention entitled “Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects”. Protocol II of the 1980 Convention, subtitled “Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby Traps and Other Devices”, proscribes, in accordance with the general laws of war, the indiscriminate use of such weapons and their use against civilians.
Minefields, it stipulates, must be recorded, and civilians are to be given warning of remotely-delivered mines. But the stipulation applies only to “pre-planned” minefields and it does not apply at all when “circumstances do not permit”. Mines with self-neutralizing mechanisms are exempted from the Protocol, and it contains no allocation of responsibility for mine-clearance. And the Convention contains no provision for its own implementation, neither for monitoring nor for sanctions.
The thicket of limitations in the 1980 Convention makes it subject to endless legalistic interpretation. Ten years on, moreover, it has been ratified by only thirty-two of eighty-five countries that participated in the drafting. (The thirty-two do not include the United States, though this is likely to change soon.) Even if all countries ratified and observed the Convention, it would not cover internal conflicts—civil wars—or be binding on non-governmental forces. In real world terms, in the words of Human Rights Watch, the 1980 Protocol is “an utterly ineffective document both in theory and practice”.
Some legal specialists, like Louise Doswald-Beck of the ICRC, argue that anti-personnel mines are already unlawful under international customary law, which has an umbrella prohibition on the use of weapons that are indiscriminate by nature, or that, according to an infelicity calculus known as the St Petersburg Rules, are held to cause “unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury”. Others, such as Kenneth Anderson of Human Rights Watch, argue that a law that attempts to put limits on the use of mines can never be effective; the only possible way to control them is to impose prohibitions at the production and transfer end.
For the last two years a global alliance of human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations has been campaigning to put mines back on the international disarmament agenda; their aim is to update the international laws of war to reflect the new reality of use; to put mines in the same legal and ethical category as chemical and biological weapons, to stigmatize them in the public imagination, and to press for a global ban. Spearheaded in the United States by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the campaign includes Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, the Mines Advisory Group and two medical aid organizations, Handicap International of France and Medico International of Germany. Working with these groups to introduce new controls on mines are the ICRC and World Vision International, the world’s largest non-governmental aid organization, which is backed by evangelical Christians.
Last year the anti-mine coalition achieved a remarkable and unheralded victory. In July 1992 the US Senate passed legislation unilaterally imposing a one-year moratorium on the sale, transfer and export abroad of anti-personnel mines. The Senate’s version of the moratorium was agreed to by the House and was signed into law the following month. On September 14 this year, by a unanimous vote, the Senate passed a three-year extension of the moratorium, which is due to be signed into law by President Clinton soon. The sponsors of the legislation were two Democrats, Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont senator who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, and Lane Evans, a congressman from Illinois.
Earlier this year, 1993, Leahy told the Senate: “I remember how outraged everyone was in this country when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds. But how many people realize that all the deaths from chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons are only a fraction of the number who have been killed or maimed by land mines?”
The moratorium, said Leahy, “shows that the United States intends to be a leader in stopping the spread of these insidious weapons.”
In October 1993, after wrangles with the Defense Department, the new Clinton-appointed head of the US delegation to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, tabled a motion calling for all member states to impose similar moratoriums. On Armistice Day, Senator Leahy went to the United Nations to introduce the resolution. As of the end of 1993, forty-five states have agreed to sponsor it. President Mitterrand of France, on a state visit to Cambodia, announced that he had asked the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene an International Conference to revise the 1980 Convention and called on other mine-manufacturing countries to join France in an export moratorium
The breakthrough on the part of the anti-mine coalition was facilitated by a convergence of interests among non-governmental organizations. The coalition included aid agencies that found their relief work obstructed or made ineffective by mines, human rights activists who recognized the grievous effect mines were having on civilians in war-affected and post-conflict countries, arms-control lobbyists who sought a clear-cut campaigning issue in the aftermath of the cold war and, finally, health-workers who saw their facilities overwhelmed by a huge increase in mine injuries.
It was this last factor that propelled the International Committee of the Red Cross, the discreet and sedulously neutral guardian of the Geneva Conventions, into its unprecedentedly high profile position on the issue. And Bobby Muller, the director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, told me that it was the experience of establishing a prosthetics program for Cambodian mine victims that led the VVAF to put its weight behind the campaign
In order to get the moratorium through Congress, however, the VVAF and allied organisations had to compromise.
“The original language of the moratorium was to include anti-tank mines, which also kill a lot of civilians,” Jody Williams, the coordinator of the international campaign told me.
“In our discussions with the military, they indicated, off the record, that they might accept losing antipersonnel mines, but they wouldn’t even discuss antitank mines, because they still consider them to be critical for national defense. So we excluded them in drafting the moratorium.”
Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota, the former Honeywell subsidiary, one of whose principal stockholders is the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, would like its mines—and those of other American manufacturers—exempted from the moratorium on the grounds that they incorporate self-destruct mechanisms and therefore do not represent the enduring threat that other mines do. But campaigners take issue with their argument.
“US producers support the ban on non-self-destruct mines because they stand to make more money from mines with self-destruct mechanisms,” says Kenneth Anderson of the Arms Project bluntly.
“Driving the price of mines up might be a good thing,” says Anderson, “in that it would slow their spread. But there are several objections to Alliant’s position. The first is that their self-destruct mechanisms are simply not reliable enough. The quantity these things are used in means that even a one per cent failure rate will leave tens of thousands of unexploded munitions on the battlefield.”
The second objection, Anderson explains, is that if self-destruct mines are exempted it will be perceived by third-world countries who lack the production capacity to make them that it’s a restrictive measure enabling the West to go on doing business while others are prevented from doing so.
“And not only that,” he says, “it would look like a move that is designed to force them to buy mines from us. That way we would have zero chance of getting, say, Egypt, to support the UN resolution. It would become a north-south argument, which is exactly what we don’t want.”
A designer mine
Banning the trade in landmines, even just anti-personnel mines, is, everyone in the campaign acknowledges, a long-term goal. Mines are too easy to make: they are manufactured in nearly fifty countries and exported from more than twenty. Although they represent a very small proportion of the world traffic in weapons systems, anti-personnel mines are worth something between fifty and two hundred million dollars a year to the arms industry, most of it in in the big four producer countries.
“There is very little published information,” says Steve Goose, the Washington Director of the Arms Project, “but there are a host of reasons for believing that the use of mines—and the trade in them—is increasing. And that the rate of increase is increasing.”
For every mine in the ground, Goose stresses, there is another in store; and for every one in store another on the production line.
The most aggressive mine-exporting country today is Italy. Two of the three Italian manufacturers, Valsella meccanotecnica and BPD Difesa e Spazio (formerly known as Misar), which market mutually interchangeable weapons systems, are half-owned by the automobile giant Fiat. It was a corruption case in Italy that let some light into this aspect of the secretive international arms trade.
In the early 1980s Valsella sold seven million mines to Chartered Industries of Singapore, a conduit for sales to middle eastern countries. Then, in 1991, seven Valsella employees were convicted of an illegal sale of $180 million worth of munitions, a sale that included nine million mines. The client, in this case, was Iraq. A US army intelligence report on the eve of the Gulf War noted that these state-of-the-art landmines were “indicative of the seriousness of the mines threat”. About a third of the uncleared Argentine mines in the Falklands, according to Paul Jefferson, are also Italian-made. Recently, US intelligence sources noted a shipment to the Armenian enclave in Nogorno-Karabakh.
Italian landmines are among the world’s most insidious: Valsella was one of the first manufacturers to incorporate automatic boobytraps in anti-personnel devices and, along with producers in China and Belgium, has taken the lead in marketing low-metal plastic mines that impede detection and clearance. The Misar (BPD) SB-33, is an Italian-made blast mine that is littered across Iraqi Kurdistan, Kuwait and the Falklands. It is the acme of the mine designer’s art, a representative of the next generation of landmines, the generation that the campaigners are trying to put a halt to.
The SB-33 weighs six ounces, is almost all plastic, blast-resistant, and can be equipped with an anti-tamper device (ie a booby-trap) similar to the anti-tilt mechanism on the 72-A. The mine is made in a range of colours designed to blend with any terrain: desert sand, camel dung, jungle, shingle or swamp. It has a special finish resistant to infra-red sensing. It can be buried or scattered from the air and it is waterproof and functions upside-down. A US army report describes it as “effective against all countermeasures” including flails and fuel-air explosions.
To look at, the SB-33 is a startlingly seductive object: palm-sized, pebble-shaped, subtly asymmetrical, with a synthetic skin shagreened like leather. The neoprene pressure-plate is elastic to the touch, with the user-friendly bounce of computer keys. It is truly a designer-mine, the Sony Walkman of weaponry. Millions have been manufactured, not only in Italy but also, under franchise, by companies in Portugal, Greece and Spain. The plastic that makes a mine like this so troublesome to detect in the ground makes it seem innocuous to the eye. It does not look like a weapon. It looks like a toy, as children in war zones throughout the world have discovered to their cost. Even when you know what the SB-33 is, there is a powerful impulse to cradle it in your hand and gaze at it, oblivious of the fact that this paradoxical object is designed not to be seen until the instant of detonation, when it destroys both its onlooker and itself.