In Global War on Land Mines, Deployers Have Technology Edge

Meanwhile, civilian casualties have grown since the 1970s

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SOME land mines are cheaper than cheeseburgers. Some are plastic and virtually undetectable. And some explode when they pick up the signal of a metal detector above them.

The technology for finding and disarming the estimated 80 million to 100 million land mines scattered around the world is decades behind the technology for making them. Whether demining workers earn $90,000 a year in Kuwait or $100 a week in Cambodia, they still end up on their knees, probing the ground ahead of them with bayonets.

The lag in demining technology isn't surprising, says Bob Muller, a spokesman on demining issues for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. For the armies of the industrial world, the antipersonnel land mine is almost passe.

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''The military goal is to penetrate a minefield and keep moving; and they are willing to take losses,'' says Mr. Muller, who just returned from Cambodia where decades of civil war have turned it into the most heavily mined nation, per capita, on Earth. Humanitarian groups measure their success by how many acres are swept clear of mines.

''Sometimes you have to play soccer on a field to persuade people to use it again,'' Muller says. ''The groups that do demining say, 'We don't need 'Star Wars.' We need something cheap, practical, sturdy, and appropriate to the local terrain. Give us a way to determine if the blip on the metal detector is a piece of shrapnel or a mine.' ''

Since World War I, when Germans left artillery shells in the ground to blow up advancing French and British tanks, technology has favored deployers of land mines. Yet even in World War II, when the United States developed antipersonnel mines to protect antitank mines from theft and reuse by the enemy, most mine casualties were soldiers.

In the 1970s and '80s, the nature of warfare changed, and civilian casualties mounted. US planes dropped ''scatterables,'' or contact mines, over Vietnam. The former Soviet Union dropped ''butterfly bombs,'' mines sometimes shaped like toys, over Afghanistan. In Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, rogue armies used land mines to terrorize entire villages into obedience.

The cost of these wars, both in human and economic terms, is only now becoming clear. Farmers are reluctant to return to their fields; many of those wounded by mines have difficulty regaining their self-sufficiency.

For US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the sight of thousands of civilian amputees on a 1992 visit to Cambodia compelled him to sponsor a one-year moratorium on the export of US-made antipersonnel land mines. The Senate approved the moratorium unanimously and in 1993 extended it three years.

The moratorium had a profound effect on other mine-producing countries. France made official its ''voluntary abstention'' from the export of antipersonnel mines in 1993. Last year in Italy, after thousands rallied in front of the mine-producer Valsella, the parliament in Rome voted to get Italy out of the mine business.

For humanitarian groups, Italy's vote was particularly sweet, since they regard that country, along with Russia and China, as the rogues in the mine-export business. And while groups taking part in the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines agree that a total ban is perhaps an unreachable goal, they hope that a sufficient stigma can be placed on the use of land mines that most countries will avoid them.

This week, the US Senate is expected to ratify the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980, which includes a provision limiting land-mine use. The vote is important, says Leahy staffer Tim Rieser, as it will allow the US a lead role at the UN conference in Vienna in September, when a global ban on antipersonnel mines will be taken up.

For their part, demining groups are waiting for donor states to meet in Geneva this July. While the West still seems willing to contribute funds to clear mines, some donor states are waiting for this conference before contributing. And as wars continue in Angola, Cambodia, and Bosnia, more mines are being laid and the demand for funds grows.

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