THE act of planting seed to bring forth life has seldom been more callously violated than in the placing of land mines in the earth's fertile soil. Left concealed underground for decades after the peace treaties have been signed and the cannons silenced, these buried bombs leave their tragic legacy with abandon.
Their low cost (as little as $7 to $10 apiece), widespread availability, and ease of installation have made them the weapon of choice in the developing world. There they are used in vast numbers by both governments and guerrillas not only to protect populations but to prevent enemy peoples from tilling the fields on which their livelihoods depend. One million acres along the Zambia-Zimbabwe border have been virtually abandoned due to mines seeded during Zimbabwe's war of independence two decades ago. In Angola, 20 million land mines litter one-third of the nation's territory, maiming 20,000 citizens. In Somalia, large numbers of peasants remain dependent on global relief agencies, in part because they cannot return to fields saturated with land mines.
A recent State Department survey revealed mine pollution problems in 56 countries, 37 of which don't have sufficient resources to deal with them on their own. An estimated 4 million mines lie buried by all factions in Cambodia (one for every two people in a nation the size of Missouri), and 10 million in Afghanistan, where at present rates of removal it will take 4,300 years to clear them from 20 percent of the country.
Though land mines have been used since World War I, they have become an issue of public concern only in the past few years. But momentum for a ban has since been building rapidly. The impetus for action first came from Vietnam veterans, helping to rehabilitate people maimed by mines in Cambodia and Central America. Joining forces with Medico International, a German citizens' organization monitoring the conventional-arms trade, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation launched an International Campaign to Ban Land Mines in November 1991, which quickly spread to citizens' groups in Britain, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In addition to calling for a ban on the production, use, and proliferation of land mines, the campaign proposes the establishment of a United Nations fund for the eradication of minefields and for compensation of victims, to be financed by nations exporting land mines.
Current restrictions on land mines are few and ineffectual. A 1983 UN convention on conventional weapons that are "excessively injurious or have indiscriminate effects" has been signed by 50 nations. It calls for mines to be used only where a military objective exists, requires the mapping of mine fields, and prohibits use of mines containing materials that can escape detection by X-rays. Unfortunately, these terms have proven unenforceable. Increasingly, mines are made of plastics that can't be seen in X-rays, which makes it difficult to medically treat people injured by mines. And despite the convention, the trade in land mines continues to rise dramatically. Moreover, several major nations that have signed have declined to ratify the convention, including the United States, Britain, Germany, and Italy. Of the 35 nations currently manufacturing land mines, the leading producers are the former Soviet Union, Italy, Belgium, and France. However, French President Francois Mitterrand recently pledged to cease
Though the US has declined to ratify the convention, it has recently led the way for other nations by unilaterally restraining its international trade in land mines. At the behest of the Vietnam Veterans Foundation, in October 1992 Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois persuaded Congress to pass a one-year moratorium on the US export of antipersonnel mines. This year they hope to extend the moratorium for several more years while committing the Clinton administration to pu sh for an international agreement to ban or restrict the trade in land mines.
The 10th anniversary of the 1983 UN convention occurs in December. To mark the occasion, France is calling for a review conference to strengthen the convention's provisions. The European Parliament recently passed a "Motion for a Resolution" asking all member states to agree to a five-year moratorium on the sale, transfer, or export of anti-personnel mines.
Next to nuclear weapons and other massively destructive arms, land mines look like an afterthought. But while the threat of nuclear weapons is abstract and all-encompassing, the fact of land mines is tangible and immediate. At the very least, nations that manufacture and sell these weapons, along with those who placed them in the ground, must be charged with the financial burden of extracting and deactivating the devices and providing care for those wounded by them.