Curbs Needed on Global Land-Mine Trade

Cheap, small, and lethal, mines take their toll long after war's end, hindering efforts to rebuild devastated nations

THE Clinton administration is gaining broad international support for limiting the trade in, and indiscriminate use of, anti-personnel mines. As a result, the UN General Assembly will soon consider a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on mine exports. Here is why that resolution is literally a matter of life and death.

First, in many parts of the world, mines have become the coward's weapon of choice. They are simple to lay and extremely difficult to destroy or detect. Increasingly, they are being used not as a means to limit the movements of an opposing army, but as a weapon of terror and economic war. The results can be devastating. Instead of denying armies the grounds on which to fight, they deny civilians the lands required to survive - to plant crops or supply safe routes to market.

Second, mines kill long after other violence ends. In many conflicts today, minefields are not mapped and the mines lack self-neutralizing features. They may lie in wait for decades before being triggered by the innocent footstep of a farmer or child. Some mines are so cheap (as low as $3 apiece) that they invite indiscriminate use. The toll is grim: 150 civilians killed or maimed by mines each week; 1 million Afghan children injured or dead; one Cambodian out of every 236 an amputee.

Third, the presence of mines has made international humanitarian relief and economic recovery efforts more complicated, expensive, and dangerous. There are 85 million to 100 million uncleared land mines scattered around the world. Afghanistan alone has 10 million. The cost of clearing mines is high, and each dollar spent for that purpose is a dollar not available for other urgent humanitarian needs. Mines also retard the repatriation of refugees and the restoration of normal economic life in countries recovering from the ravages of war.

The United States effort to restrict this indiscriminate form of warfare has several elements. Thanks to the leadership of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois, Congress has voted to bar US exports of mines for at least the next three years. At the UN, the Clinton administration has gained the co-sponsorship of 75 other nations for a resolution calling for a global moratorium. We also are working with friends and allies to foster multilateral cooperation in clearing mines already laid and for a conference aimed at strengthening international law governing the use of mines. In addition, we are allocating $20 million to assist in developing new mine-clearing technologies and in teaching local nationals how to detect and disarm mines safely. We are also working to ensure full support for the Cambodian Mine Action Center.

This past summer, I saw firsthand the grim legacy of indiscriminately used mines in Somalia, Cambodia, and El Salvador. You cannot walk down a street in Phnom Penh without seeing a small child using a makeshift crutch or wagon to move from place to place. We cannot make those children whole. But we can save their younger brothers and sisters, in that city and around the world, from a similar future.

A United Nations moratorium is the right way for the world to say ``no'' to the cruel misuse of this destructive weapon. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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