Land mines should be limited, not banned

September 09, 1997|By Andrew C.S. Efaw

PHILADELPHIA -- President Clinton's recent decision to enter the Ottawa negotiations on banning land mines signals a disturbing change in administration policy that may leave American soldiers vulnerable.

The Ottawa process, involving more than 100 countries, has as its goal the banning of all land mines. (The United States hopes to secure an exemption to the land-mine ban for the Korean Peninsula.) Supporters hope to have a treaty in place by the end of this year.

In the past, the United States has been involved in U.N. discussions, not to outlaw mines, but to limit their use. China and Russia were also involved in the U.N. talks, but have not joined the Ottawa talks.

Unquestionably, land mines have a grisly effect. Each month mines kill nearly 800 people and wound 450 more. Of about a million land-mine victims during the past 20 years, 80 percent have been noncombatants; often they stumbled upon the mines years after the cessation of hostilities.

A burgeoning population

About 100 million land mines in over 60 countries now lie waiting to be cleared or to destroy some unsuspecting victim -- one hidden mine for every 50 people on earth. In the 12 countries with the worst land-mine problems, one mine has been laid for every three to five people.

Nevertheless, a worldwide ban on land mines cannot succeed. They are simply too easy and too cheap to manufacture, at a cost of about $2 to $10 per mine. But the cost of removing a mine can reach as much as $1,000. Clearing all 100 million existing mines would cost an estimated $100 billion.

Many mines were laid for the purpose of depleting the other side's resources by maiming, rather than killing, the enemy. The cost of caring for an amputee is far greater than just putting a soldier in a body bag and shipping him home. The cost is measured not only in dollars, but also in manpower and public sentiment.

Thus, mines have become the poor man's weapon of choice. In times of conflict, poor countries and struggling insurgents will continue to turn to the mine as a low-cost, high-return investment.

Rogue nations

Historically, guerrilla factions and rogue nations, such as Iraq and Angola, have blatantly disregarded the Landmines Protocol of the Geneva Convention. Is there reason to presume that they will honor an out-and-out ban?

An embargo on selling or exporting mines will be ineffective; they are easy to make. About 25 percent of the 2 million to 3 million mines currently deployed in the Balkans are homemade.

Thus a ban would bind only law-abiding nations, not the lawless.

Despite their misuse in such countries as Afghanistan and Cambodia, land mines have legitimate uses in the United States' military arsenal. Current U.S. military doctrine regards mines as a military necessity. They are ''combat multipliers,'' said to ''shape the terrain'' by channeling enemy forces into a specific sector or by scattering them over a broad zone.

More than 99 percent

The United States has taken precautions to minimize civilian casualties by employing, except in the buffer zone between North and South Korea, only self-destructing or self-neutralizing mines. They perform inaccurately only .0031 percent of the time, making hazardous ''duds'' extremely rare.

Furthermore, these ''smart'' mines are aimed only at valid targets (enemy soldiers) for the purpose of saving U.S. soldiers' lives. Mines prevented U.S. casualties during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Minefields sown by the Air Force halted two Iraqi divisions that sought to attack the vulnerable left flank of the advancing U.S. VII Corps.

As long as military leaders can point to such examples, a complete ban on land mines will be unwise. Enforcing the correct employment of land mines, rather than a wholesale ban, is the key to making the world a safer place.

Andrew C.S. Efaw, a recent law-school graduate, served as an artillery officer during the Persian Gulf war.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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