Land Mines Keep Wars From Ever Coming to an End

Efforts to control the murderous weapons are mounting, but a recent US plan is a dud

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IF there were a chance that walking to the corner store might cost you your legs, arms, eyes, or even your life, you'd find another route, choose another store, or order by phone.

But millions of people in more than 60 countries live with that risk every day. These people live in areas saturated by insidious devices known as antipersonnel land mines (AP mines), which remain lethal long after the conflict that sparked their deployment is over.

Eighty percent of the victims of AP mines are civilians, many of them children; tens of millions of dollars in development and humanitarian aid are spent to clear mines and treat injuries they cause; and 2 million more AP mines are being planted each year than are being cleared.

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Statistically, economically, and emotionally, these buried killers are overwhelming.

But momentum is building to do something to prevent their spread. Last summer a report commissioned by the Pentagon recognized ''the grave humanitarian problems'' presented by AP mines. Then last December the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to seek their total elimination.

And on Jan. 27 US Secretary of State Warren Christopher unveiled a plan intended to accomplish that end. This plan, however, though an attempt to give more weight to the human costs of the mines than to their military utility, could easily destroy the momentum toward controlling these weapons.

Mr. Christopher proposes to eliminate millions of ''dumb,'' non-self-destructing, AP mines that are cheap to build, buy, and plant. Unlike self-destructing ''smart'' mines, which the plan allows, these mines can live on for generations, spreading carnage on a hair trigger long after fighting has ended and civilians reclaim the battlefields. In the Netherlands, a dozen people are wounded by World War II dumb mines every year.

The benefit of this plan to the United States is that it could keep its smart mines while nations dependent on dumb mines would be forced to give up all mines or purchase smart ones from the few countries, such as the US, that produce them.

On paper it appears a sound policy, but such a move would in reality be a potential disaster. The proposal opens dangerous loopholes, making enforcement nearly impossible, as anyone could claim that their mines deactivate automatically, knowing that the only real test is whether the explosives detonate when triggered.

WORST of all, by tilting the playing field in favor of wealthy nations, the plan would breed suspicion of American leadership just when confidence and cooperation are most needed. Few developing countries would sign on and momentum toward a solution for the mine crisis would be wiped out.

A more realistic approach is to explicitly define where and how mines could be deployed. Few nations would denounce restrictions on placing mines in civilian areas or away from borders; tightened minefield- identification rules; and tougher mandates on mine mapping and removal.

This allows the US to keep its self-destructing mines and small countries to cheaply defend their borders -- keeping the disarmament process even and fair -- while cutting the threat to civilians.

Compliance can be determined by coupling an expanded United Nations Register of conventional arms transactions with on-the-ground observations from the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) already working in war zones.

Tough sanctions along with the international stigma accompanying unlawful use of such inhumane weapons will back up the rhetoric. Best of all, these steps only entail augmenting existing programs and could be implemented quickly and cheaply.

No one disputes that land mines are a vast threat to the security of millions of people around the world. But we must make sure that one step supposedly toward a solution will not set us two steps back.

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