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News ::
US Landmine Policy
18 Dec 2001
Modified: 22 Dec 2001
Anti-personnel landmines maim or kill 18,000 people a year. In Afghanistan, a heavily mined country, as many as 88 people a month have stepped on a mine. Since the start of the US bombing campaign, that number is thought to be much higher. A landmine is a horrific weapon that maims and kills indiscriminately, a weapon that most of the world's countries have seen fit to ban in a 1997 treaty. The United States remains one of the few that has not signed it.
Anti-personnel landmines maim or kill 18,000 people a year. In Afghanistan, a heavily mined country, as many as 88 people a month have stepped on a mine. Since the start of the US bombing campaign, that number is thought to be much higher. A landmine is a horrific weapon that maims and kills indiscriminately, a weapon that most of the world's countries have seen fit to ban in a 1997 treaty. The United States remains one of the few that has not signed it. President Clinton put off signing the treaty to 2006, and the Bush Administration appears to be backing away from Clinton's promises altogether. The Defense Department has stressed the need for landmine use in areas where special forces are in operation, perhaps making mines an important part of the US "war on terrorism."
The following interview with Gina Coplon-Newfield, the Physicians for Human Rights-based coordinator of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, describes mines and their implications for human rights, US policy towards mine-banning efforts, past and present, and ongoing efforts to get the US to join the mine-ban treaty.

IMC: Could you tell me a little about your organization, the U.S. Campaign to
Ban Landmines?

GCN: Sure. The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines is a coalition of about 500 veterans', religious, peace, human rights, and humanitarian organizations, that are working to get the United States to join the 1997 Mine Ban treaty and to increase U.S. resources for mine removal. The coalition is a group of about 500 groups, but the steering committee is comprised of 15
organizations, and one of those groups is Physicians for Human Rights, which
is the host organization.
Basically, there's the mine-ban treaty which bans the use, production,
stockpiling, and trade of anti-personnel landmines.

IMC: The '97 treaty?

GCN: Yes. And the majority of the world has joined this treaty, in fact almost three quarters of the world has joined, including all of NATO except the US and Turkey. So it's becoming a global norm that it's a weapon that is
so indiscriminate and affects so many more innocent children, women, and farmers... It just makes sense to most of the world to outlaw this weapon.
But, the United States has not joined this treaty. President Clinton did not sign it in 1997, but he did assert that it was important for the US to take
steps towards eventually joining the treaty, he said, by the year 2006. The Bush Administration has not yet formally announced its landmine policy and we expect them to do so in a couple of weeks. They initiated a landmine policy
review a few months ago. We thought it was on hold after September 11, but apparently it's not and we just found out a few weeks ago that it has gone forward and the Defense Department has finished their review, and they have
now handed it over to the State Department.
But the Defense Department has recommended the following: for the US to abandon all efforts to join the mine-ban treaty by 2006 forever, to abandon all efforts to get rid of so-called "dumb mines" by the year 2003, which was
prior US policy, to eliminate the search for alternatives program, and to assert the need for US deployment of mines in Korea and also elsewhere,
particularly places where Special Operations are called for. A lot of us think of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the worst mine-infected countries in the world. It's unclear whether the US has been deploying mines in
Afghanistan during the military conflict. We don't think they have been.

IMC: Have any landmines been deployed by the US in the past?

GCN: None as far as we know. Most of the mines on the ground are from the Russians or from the Afghan civil war. But if the US were to deploy mines in Afghanistan, not only would it exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the
country, already devastated by so many things including landmines, but it would put US troops at risk because US troops, it's been shown, are at really
serious risk of stepping on mines, whether they be enemy forces' mines or US mines, and that was shown to be true in Vietnam where a third of US casualties were due to mines and 80% to 90% of those casualties were due to
US made or US laid landmines. So, we have been doing a few things lately. We just sent a letter to President Bush this week that urged him to support a ban on mines. It was signed by 500 US veterans in all 50 states, and they've
stated their support for a ban both for military and humanitarian reasons. We are working on members of Congress right now.

IMC: You mentioned Afghanistan. How many people approximately have been killed by landmines in Afghanistan?

GCN: In the year 2000 it was estimated that 88 people per month stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan . So that was before this whole conflict erupted. It
is now estimated that those numbers have increased because there are so many people on the run and they're in unfamiliar territory. At least when you're
at home you have some sense of where the mines are, but when you're on the run in parts of the country that are unfamiliar to you. Especially when you're running from people who you think are going to harm you but also
running to get food that is being dropped.

IMC: Do we have any numbers for recent landmine casualties?

GCN: We don't have any numbers because it's so chaotic there right now and it's so hard to communicate with people on the ground there and the people on the ground, even if we could reach them, they're in such dire straits that
they're not really collecting data. So it's hard. But, we have heard from some sources on the ground that the casualty rates from the mines have increased.

IMC: So, it's my understanding that the purpose of most mines is to maim people, not necessarily kill them. What are some of the reasons for this?

GCN: Well from a military perspective, if someone in the opposing force steps on a mine and they're injured by it, not only will they be taken out of combat but the fellow soldiers who then take that person to safety and to
medical help are also taken out of combat. But it's estimated that half of the people who step on landmines worldwide actually die from them because the majority of these people are poor civilians who have to take a lot of time and energy to get medical help. Most cases there's not a hospital nearby. Many people die en route.

IMC: Obviously, Afghanistan is a heavily mined country. How much of the land area is deemed dangerous because of landmines?

GCN: 27 out of 29 provinces in Afghanistan. Absolutely the majority of the country is dangerous when it comes to landmines.

IMC: How badly mined are other countries compared to Afghanistan?

GCN: There are other countries that certainly have a pretty bad landmine problem, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Kosovo, Bosnia, Vietnam... There are an estimated 80+ countries that have a landmine problem, and an estimated 80+ million landmines scattered all over. And that's even after significant demining. There still is a tremendous problem. So there's still so much to be done on the demining front, and then of course on the banning front, because if we ban them at least we know that the problem is a matter of demining, not future mine use.

IMC: Has the US helped international demining efforts when asked to provide maps or special equipment to deal with mines created by the US?

GCN: Mm-hmm. Actually, the US has contributed more money to demining efforts than any other country in the world, so that's definitely a positive thing. The US has demining programs in many countries including Afghanistan. Many of them are countries that have US mines in the ground, like Vietnam. So, they're not all bad when it comes to landmines.

IMC: It seems kind of odd to me to finance demining efforts on one hand, and refuse to sign mine-banning treaties on the other.

GCN: Yes, it does. Well, what they'll say, or at least what the Clinton administration always said is that we're not part of the problem, we're part of the solution. Other countries are part of the problem, like Russia, China, and Angola, so you should be focusing your energies on them, not us, since we're not even really deploying them. We have some on the ground in Korea, but we're not really planting them elsewhere. What's so shocking about this Bush policy, or at least the direction it's heading, is that they might actually start planting them again, which would be even more ironic than it was during the Clinton administration. And obviously even more important than being ironic is that it's horrific for the civilians that are affected.

IMC: So what are some other organizations within the US that work on this issue?

GCN: Well, our coalition as I said is about 500 organizations, so the ones that are most active are the United Nations Association, the Landmine Survivors' Network, Human Rights Watch, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Friends' Committee on National Education, a Quaker lobby group, the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Church World Service, a lot of religious groups, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the Center for International Policy, CARE, Save the Children, a whole host of humanitarian, human rights, veterans' and religious groups, along with medical groups like Physicians for Human Rights and Physicians Against Landmines.

IMC: Could you briefly describe what a cluster bomb is?

GCN: A cluster bomb is a bomb that is a cluster of mini-bombs, and the intention is for it to go off and scatter in all directions when it hits the ground. Unfortunately, cluster bombs have a pretty high dud rate, some say 5%, some say as high as 30%. So the problem with that is that when cluster bombs hit the ground and don't go off, they're what's called an unexploded ordinance, which basically makes it like a landmine. It just sits on the ground waiting for someone to touch it and set it off. And unfortunately, a lot of times, the people who do that are children who don't know better, or adults who are trying to diffuse them to protect their children, and they end up blowing themselves up.

IMC: Are unexploded cluster bomblets a danger as great as landmines?

GCN: Yes, and actually possibly more dangerous because landmines are intended to maim, and cluster bombs intended to kill.

IMC: So since those bomblets are like landmines in some respects, what is your organization's position on cluster bombs?

GCN: The US Campaign to Ban Landmines and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines don't have an official position on cluster bombs, although individual organizations within those coalitions do. For example, Physicians for Human Rights has come out with a position calling for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan.

IMC: Why do you think the coalition makes the distinction between the two?

GCN: Well there definitely is a difference between landmines and cluster bombs, because landmines are intended to go off and maim or kill whoever steps on them, and it's absolutely clear that the majority of the time those people are civilians, absolutely innocent civilians. Cluster bombs on the other hand are actually intended to kill so-called enemies. The other reason is that while a lot has been accomplished on the landmines issue, there's still a lot to be done, and so if the landmines campaign started working on cluster bombs, some might say ok, what's next? What's another weapon that affects civilians?

IMC: A slippery slope.

GCN: Yes, it's a slippery slope. It could turn into the campaign to ban a lot of things, which I think would dillute the campaign and make it less effective. I think it was a good decision to keep focus on landmines, while at the same time encouraging individual organizations and people to take action on the cluster bomb issue.

IMC: What are some of the voices in the military that support banning or limiting the use of landmines?

GCN: General Hollingsworth and General Emerson, who both served as commanders in Korea. They both support a ban. General Dave Palmer who was the former superintendant of West Point Military Academy. And many others.

IMC: They've argued their points from a primarily practical perspective?

GCN: Right. Anti-personnel landmines have been such a hindrance, such a danger to US soldiers who've died or been injured by them, but also in terms of combat mobility, they slow operational tempo. So the presence of landmines, while it sometimes could be helpful, in many cases is actually harmful because it slows forces down.

IMC: The largest issue when it comes to landmines, however, is not a simple cost-benefit analysis, whether it's good for military strategy or not, but human rights. So, if you had to name just a few things, what makes landmines particularly bad when it comes to human rights as opposed to other weapons the military uses, such as bombs or missiles?

GCN: That's a very good question. We know that landmines maim and kill thousands of people each year, as many as 18,000 people, and most of those people are civilians, women traveling to market, farmers tending to their fields, children playing. But they not only affect those 18,000 people and their families, but they affect millions of other people, because even if you don't step on a mine, and even if there aren't landmines in your community, if there's even the fear that there are landmines in your community, your way of life is going to be altered, if there is the fear that there are landmines in the farming areas in your community, you might be so desperate that you take the risk to cultivate the land, but you might feel like it's not worth it and you'll have to go elsewhere to cultivate your land or to support your community to find food. So it affects nutrition, it affects poverty level, it affects health rate because health care workers are a lot less likely to travel to mine-infected communities, so for example AIDS rates and polio rates are higher in mine-infected communities. Landmines affect almost every part of life. It affects millions of people around the world in 80+ countries, and most of those countries are poor countries, where if someone does step on a mine, they're unlikely to quickly find a medical facility, and even when they do, the medical facility is unlikely to have adequate pain medication, unlikely to have trained surgeons who know how to do amputation. They're unlikely to have physical therapists or psychiatrists who can help them with the trauma involved with losing a limb. They're unlikely to have prosthetic limbs, so oftentimes people who lose a leg to a landmine are unable to get crutches or a prosthetic leg, which is particularly difficult in communities where most of the way of life is physical labor. Finally, and this particularly affects women and girls, in many mine-infected countries, losing a leg as a girl or as a woman makes you unattractive in certain cultures. So many girls or women who step on mines are considered un-marryable.

IMC: Thank you very much for your time.
See also:
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