Why a Ban on Land Mines Makes Moral and Economic Sense

In Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mozambique, and other countries these indiscriminate weapons have blasted agriculture and commerce

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ON June 16 Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois introduced a bill giving the Pentagon three years to find military alternatives to land mines. The bill would then prohibit US forces from using these weapons for a year while the president challenges other countries to agree to a permanent worldwide ban.

Our office recently released a study which concludes that the three years provided by the Leahy-Evans bill is sufficient time for the Pentagon to develop military alternatives and for the State Department to negotiate a worldwide ban.

The Unabomber multiplied

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A good way for Americans to grasp the importance of banning land mines - a goal which has been endorsed by more than 250 arms control and humanitarian groups - is to relate it to our experience with the so-called "Unabomber."

The Unabomber has struck 16 times since 1978, killing three and wounding 23. Look past the human tragedy of the moment and focus on the long-term economic consequences of these cowardly deeds: mail rooms all over the country have slowed to a crawl as colleges and businesses install expensive equipment to detect explosives, while millions of dollars have been spent on medical and rehabilitative services.

Imagine, then, the human tragedy and economic impact of millions of Unabombs. This is the chilling reality that dozens of developing nations face because of civil wars waged with land mines. Land mines are buried bombs that explode at a footfall, and do not distinguish between that of a soldier or a child. They claim tens of thousands of victims, mostly civilians, each year. Added to this casualty list are the economies of these nations. Land mines are often buried on farmlands and along roads, thereby striking at the heart of a country's resources.

Worldwide, the cost of clearing land mines has been estimated in the billions of dollars. Since mine clearance is dangerous and slow, even in the best of cases, farmland is removed from productive use for years. Consider these country cases:

* In Afghanistan, more than 50 percent of the livestock have been killed by land mines and bombs. A survey of 949 villages showed animal death because of land- mines resulted in a loss worth $60 million dollars.

* In Cambodia, an estimated 6 to 10 million land mines are scattered among a population of 8 million people. The State Department has called Cambodia "a textbook case of a country crippled by uncleared land mines." Rich land that was once covered by rice paddies now lies fallow, and when farmers can work the land, they are often unable to get their harvest to market because of mined roads.

* In Mozambique, the government has lost not only tax revenues from farmers who have fled to refugee camps, but also the income from one of the most important power plants in southern Africa, which is located at the Cahora Bassa Dam. More than 1,000 of the pylons that hold up the power lines have been destroyed and the land around them is so heavily mined that it is too dangerous to repair them. Parallel lines will have to be built at a cost of $125 million.

In recent years the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and other members of the campaign to ban land mines have successfully encouraged newspapers and television news programs to put a human face on the landmine tragedy. But the image of a child with an amputated leg tells only half the story. Landmines not only kill and maim: They also kill and maim entire economies.

For the United States, whose economy depends on growth in developing countries that buy exports, this is a foreign policy challenge that must be met.

In a speech to the United Nations last fall, President Clinton made eliminating land mines a formal US goal, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher has called them weapons of mass destruction as devastating as nuclear or chemical weapons. In practice, though, the administration has retreated in the face of vehement opposition from the Defense and State Departments.

US ambivalence

The Pentagon says that it needs land mines because using other weapons and tactics to do what mines do - protect the flanks of US troops on the march and channel enemy forces into "killing zones" - would be too expensive. The State Department says that it will be nearly impossible to negotiate a workable treaty that keeps other countries from using them. Of course, both departments made similar arguments about chemical weapons and nuclear testing, which are now either banned or strictly limited under international agreements.

If the Leahy-Evans bill passes this year, it will force the Pentagon and State Department to put their considerable energies into speeding a ban, not blocking it. Meantime, the world will spend billions of dollars cleaning up after the Unabombs of the developing world, and we will all be the poorer for it.

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