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Landmines- Human right 15 Aug 1997


AUGUST 1-16, 1997


By Ashali Varma

They are scattered about the planet, 100 million of them, each a killer. They are land mines. “Landmines have killed more people than chemical, nuclear and biological weapons,” says Mary Wareham, coordinator of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines. “Every 22 minutes somewhere in the world, a child, a man or a woman becomes the victim of an antipersonnel landmine. And the numbers are increasing. There are 250,000 landmine-disabled people living in the world today.”

There is growing realization that nothing short of a total global ban on landmines is needed to effectively deal with the problem. The issue has become so volatile, however, that prospects of such a ban seem uncertain. Non-governmental organizations are accusing multinational manufacturing companies of putting profit over human safety; governments, including the United States, have been slow to act forcefully; politicians and pundits of every persuasion arc joining the fray. And the casualties, especially in developing countries beset by internal strife, keep mounting.

A ban on landmines is currently being considered by two major international initiatives: a UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, widely thought 10 be a laborious and perhaps fruitless process; and a Canadian-backed international treaty scheduled to be completed in Ottawa in December; some 95 nations have indicated support for such a treaty. The treaty’s draft language calls for “an effective legally binding international agreement to ban the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of antipersonnel mines.”

Strong opposition

Major volunteer agencies such as the international Red Cross have been involved in an advocacy campaign to persuade governments to sign the treaty, and activist organizations such as Human Rights Watch are mobilizing public support by drawing attention to the horrors of landmine use.  But opposition from government and military officials in many countries is formidable: It is unclear if the treaty will adopted.  Critics of a global ban contend that it would hinder self-defence operations against countries that do not subscribe to a global convention on landmines.

There are more than 100 million hidden landmines in 68 countries, according to Human Rights Watch.  They cost as little as $3 to $30 apiece to produce but form $300 to $1,000 to remove.  To clear 50 million mines at the lowest rate of $300 would cost about $15 billion and take several years. In those years, countless lives would be lost and many more people would have to live with crippling disabilities. Although there are scattered efforts under way to clear mines in several countries, including Angola and Mozambique, the reality is that for each mine that is cleared, somewhere else an estimated 20 new mines are being laid.

And even though the mines are a weapon of war, most of their victims are civilians. Maria Mutola of Mozambique, winner of a bronze medal at last year’s Olympic Games in Atlanta in the women’s 800 meter run, has made a moving appeal to have the mines banned. She said that her country was trying to recover from a devastating 16-year civil war, and that reconstruction has been hampered by the silent, menacing presence of landmines which kill and maim women working in the fields, children going to school or playing in areas that had been mined. She said that in many African countries, athletes do not have the luxury of running cross-country; there is always the fear of stepping on a mine and being blown up.

Historically, the US has been among the world’s biggest users of landmines, biggest producers and exporters. From 1969 through 1992, the US exported 4.4 million antipersonnel mines, according to Human Rights Watch. Then in 1992, President George Bush signed into law an amendment by Senator Patrick 1. Leahy of Vermont for a one-year moratorium on the export of antipersonnel land mines. The next year, President Bill Clinton signed into law an extension of that moratorium, and again extended the law until 1999. The current US stockpile of landmines is 14 million, and 3 million of these are scheduled for destruction because Clinton has set the stockpile cap at 11 million.

US casualties

Military records show landmines caused 33 percent of all US casualties in Vietnam and 28 percent of US deaths were attributed to landmines. Even more startling: Military records from the Vietnam war report that 90 percent of all mines or the booby-trap components of mines that were used against US troops were of US origin. Other major users and manufacturers are China, Iraq, Iran and North Korea-countries that many critics consider to be rogue states unlikely to join in any international effort to ban landmines.

According to a report titled “Exposing the Source” released by Human Rights Watch in April, 47 US companies have been involved in the production of antipersonnel mines or components that are assembled in other countries. The best known are General Electric, Alliant Techsystems, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. When Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Jack Walsh, GE’s Chairman, requesting that the company issue a statement regarding its past or present involvement in the manufacture of antipersonnel landmines or their component parts, GE responded that it had no such involvement currently.

According to Human Rights Watch, however, GE’s name showed up on a 1994 Pentagon list of suppliers of landmines and mine components. The Defence Department confirmed GE’s past production activities in a February 10, 1997 letter stating that GE was a supplier of “integrated circuit components for self-destructing landmines” and that GE is still considered to be one of the several “potential sources of supply” for landmine components.

Human Rights Watch says that GE had had business ties with the Italian company Tecnovar Italiana, which used to produce landmines. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Tecnovar stated that GE’s Dutch and US subsidiaries supplied Lexan plastic powder and synthetic rubber components to Tecnovar to manufacture 1.6 million antipersonnel mines and 1.2 million antitank mines from 1979 to 1993.

Managing Director, V. A. Fontana of Tecnovar also wrote to Human Rights Watch to say, “Regarding our raw material producers, we can confirm that our main suppliers were General Electric Plastics (GEP) for plastic components using the Lexan polycarbonate produced in the GEP factory in the Netherlands; General Electric Plastics US. All suppliers were aware of our production.”

When contacted by The Earth Times, Bruce Bunch, a spokesman for GE, said, “When Human Rights Watch first called us in 1994, we told them we had no involvement in landmine production then.” He added, “We have no involvement in landmine production today or plans for future involvement.” He went on to say that the report cites Tecnovar as a former landmine producer but not GE as a former supplier.

Tracking the arms trade

Typical in the arms trade is that arms are often bought by one country and then end up in another; the global arms trade is estimated by Transparency International, a watchdog organization in Berlin, to be about $800 billion annually. Egypt bought 1.4 million antipersonnel mines from Tecnovar between 1979 and 1993. In 1996, some of the mines that had been exported to Egypt were found among weapons captured from rebel Hutu militia groups in Rwanda.

Human Rights Watch’s investigation of US activity in the landmine business has been widely recognized as forcing US and other companies to re-examine their record concerning landmines. In the last 12 months, 17 US companies have announced they will no longer be involved in antipersonnel mine production. One of the first was Motorola. In July 1996, company executives pledged to “do everything reasonably possible to make sure that Motorola does not knowingly sell any part that is intended for use in an antipersonnel mine …

“We believe that we have an obligation and a unique opportunity to proactively support the elimination of antipersonnel mines.”

According to the Human Rights Watch report, Alliant Techsystems Inc. “is the company that appears to have profited the most from landmine production contracts,” It says Alliant was awarded antipersonnel and antitank landmine production contracts worth $336 million in 1985-95; the company’s Wisconsin subsidiary Accudyne Corp. was awarded similar contracts worth $150 million in 1985-95.

In response to Human Rights Watch’s appeal to cease production, Alliant CEO Richard Schwartz replied in a letter dated August 22, 1996: “The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has served an invaluable role in shedding light on a terrible problem that must be addressed,” but he insisted his company’s landmines were not to blame. “It is irresponsible to imply that companies such as Alliant Techsystems have contributed to the world’s landmine problems. To do so wrongly maligns responsible US citizens and diverts resources that could be applied toward stigmatizing the governments that violate international law,”

A spokesman for Alliant Techsystems faxed The Earth Times a “fact sheet” which said among other things that “Alliant is no longer producing components for self-destruct, self- deactivating  antipersonnel landmines.”

However, Human Rights Watch said thatthis is true only because Alliant’s landmine contracts have expired but there has been no commitment by Alliant to renounce future involvement in antipersonnel mine production.

Says Human Rights Watch: “Thirty companies rejected Human Rights Watch’s humanitarian appeal to forgo any further production of antipersonnel mine components—17 companies directly, in writing, and 13 through silence.”

“US companies should acknowledge the humanitarian crisis created by antipersonnel mines and make the moral decision to get out of the business now,” said Andrew Cooper, researcher for the Human Rights Watch Arms Project and author of the report on landmines.  “The international community is moving rapidly toward a complete ban on this weapon, and US companies should contribute to the solution, not to the problem.”

Working toward Ottawa

Activists in the US are stepping up their efforts to apply pressure on the Clinton Administration to sign the treaty that will be considered in Ottawa in December. Among these activists is the US Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL), a coalition of 225 nongovernmental organizations across the country. USCBL is a part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which has been nominated for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

Part of the Ottawa process was the Brussels Conference, held June 24-27, which was attended by more than 150 governments, and representatives of 138 nongovernmental organizations from 40 countries, including landmine survivors and mine clearance experts.

“We have been calling for a ban since 1992,” said Wareham of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, “and we were called Utopian. And now at the Brussels Conference 97 countries have pledged to sign the ban treaty in December. The group includes all of Latin America, most of Africa, all of Europe with the exception of Finland, Greece and Turkey. Asian countries include Malaysia. Eastern European countries have agreed as well.”

Wareham added, “Our main concern is that we get a ban treaty signed in Ottawa but at the same time we want a treaty with no loopholes, no reservations and no exceptions-a true ban treaty.”

The US Administration, however, has not yet made a commitment to sign. According to US activists at the Brussels Conference, US delegates “tested the waters to see how many holes could be shot in the treaty in order to accommodate US policy.”

“We are particularly concerned that US delegates, through bilateral consultations, are pressing for an explicit exception for new use of all mines in Korea and the continued use of smart mines indefinitely anywhere in the world,” said Stephen Goose  of Human Rights Watch, chair of the steering committee of the  US Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Goose and other critics of US policy say it is puzzling in light of the statement made by President Clinton at the White House in May 1996: “Today I am launching an international effort ban antipersonnel land mines ….The United States will lead a global effort to eliminate these terrible weapons and to stop the enormous loss of human life.”

As early as 1994, at the UN General Assembly, Clinton spoke about the goal of “eventual elimination” of antipersonnel mines. “Ridding the world of those hidden weapons will help save the lives of tens of thousands of men and women and innocent children in the years to come,” he said.

Despite such statements, the USCBL says the Administration is susceptible pressure from the Pentagon.

On July 10, every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all of the regional Commanders-in-Chief went on record in a letter to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in opposition to a bill sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, that would ban new deployments of antipersonnel land mines by the US beginning January 2000. The bill permits the President to delay application of the ban on the Korean peninsula, and also exempts anti-tank mines and command-detonated Claymore mines.

The letter of the Joint Chief said this legislation would “unnecessarily endanger US military forces and significantly restrict the ability to conduct combat operations successfully.”

In response to the  letter, Senator Leahy’s comment to The Earth Times was,  “The Pentagon

historically has been institutionally incapable of voluntarily giving up use of  any weapon, and it is not surprising that Pentagon officials would be taking the lead in opposing these  steps on Leadership on this issue is the responsibility of our government’s civilian  leaders, and particularly the President, in his role as the commander-in-Chief.”

Stephen Goose of  Human Rights Watch, referring to the  Joint Chiefs, said: “The most disturbing  part of the letter is that the Pentagon is acting independently of the White House  and is dangerously close to a repudiation of the  existing US policy on antipersonnel landmines.”

On the other hand, several retired generals have joined with senators and congressman to support the ban.  In an open letter to President Clinton in the New York Times, April 2, 1996, 15 retired generals including former US Korean commander Lieutenant General James F.  Hollingsworth, General David Jones wrote, “Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, antipersonnel mines are not essential.  Thus, banning them would not undermine the military effectiveness or safety of our forces, nor those of other nations.” A bipartisan group of 160 House members has also urged the Administration to back the ban treaty.

The Clinton Administration said that it favours negotiating a ban through the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, but this position was criticized by the US Campaign to Ban Landmines as “an effort to avoid rapid progress toward a ban, given the notoriously slow pace of the Conference on Disarmament.” A spokesman for the Department of Defence, Lieut. Col. Nancy Burt, sent The Earth Times data which specified that the US antipersonnel landmine policy, announced by President Clinton on May 16, 1996, “calls for the aggressive pursuit of an international ban on the use, stockpiling, transfer, and production” of landmines. The Defence Department says that the current US stockpile of antipersonnel mines is 14 million, of which 3 million is scheduled for destruction. But, says Unicef’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy-a former Clinton official-landmine problems continue to afflict countries such as Egypt (23 million unexploded mines); Angola (15 million); Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Iraq (10 million each); and Vietnam (3.5 million).

Another concern of the Clinton Administration is that countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Russia are not participating in the Ottawa Process. But supporters of the bar say that if 97 countries can produce a good treaty in Canada this year that will put additional pressure on the countries that are not a part of it.

Senator Leahy said that although the purpose of the legislation is to exert US leadership, it is no different from-and in fact docs not go as far as-what others including Great Britain, Canada Germany and South Africa, have already done. These countries “have unilaterally renounced their production, use and export of these weapons and are destroying their stockpiles,” he said.

“This is a very crucial time for the US Administration,” said Cooper. “They are undergoing a thorough review of their policy on landmines in order to make decision regarding the Ottawa Process.”

Meanwhile, US activists say they will continue to keep the pressure on the administration. Some countries, they argue, might well ask: What if those 100 million mines were hidden on American soil, one for every 2.5 citizens? Would American companies or the US government even debate the issue?