GENEVA — ANTIPERSONNEL land mines are cheap, often lethal, and all over the world from Angola to Afghanistan.
They kill or maim an estimated 500 people a week worldwide, according to the US State Department. Scattered from planes or dug in the ground, they explode under civilian feet as easily as under the boots of soldiers. To a child, they can look like a harmless plastic toy.
The world's antipersonnel mines - up to 110 million in all, according to the United Nations, pose a huge problem in a tiny package. But the world community has found it difficult to agree how to decrease their use in war, let alone how to get rid of them after a war.
Delegates from 49 countries gathered in Vienna on Sept. 25 to dust off a 15-year-old land-mine treaty at the first Review Conference of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons. The US ratified the Convention and its protocols this March, and the ratification came into full the day before the conference began.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali took a strong stand in the debate by telling conference delegates that the world ''must eliminate land mines once and for all.''
What's on the table
Delegates are unlikely to agree on a total ban this time around. For example, land mines designed to detonate under tanks and vehicles are usually not included in the ban call because they do not pose the same kind of humanitarian problem as antipersonnel mines: They tend to require much heavier loads before they detonate, are more easily detected, and are used less because they are more expensive.
Unlike other such international gatherings, the outcome of the negotiations is not clear yet. Diplomatic sources going into the conference have said that many of the participating states generally support limited kinds of land-mine use and certain technical changes to antipersonnel land mines that would give them a shorter life or make them more detectible.
Many negotiators will seek to expand the treaty's mandate to cover internal conflicts and increase the number of signatory countries among UN member states. Representatives from countries that have not ratified the treaty and from humanitarian groups will also attend the conference as observers, and are expected to influence the wording of the final text.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began pushing for a total ban on land mines several years ago, inspired by what their staff saw on the ground.
''The humanitarian advocacy campaign only really started in 1987, when international aid workers trying to help Afghan refugees return home saw the number of civilian casualties climb,'' says a military specialist involved in the Afghan repatriation. Afghanistan is widely seen as one of the worst-affected countries in the world. (See story, right.)
Several of the more than 360 different types of antipersonnel land mines are, or were, produced by Western manufacturers. Yet the problem is not just closing down producers, but getting undetonated mines out of the ground after wars are over. While antipersonnel land mines can be made for as little as $3 apiece, the costs of de-mining are far higher. The UN claims that in 1993, while 80,000 land mines were neutralized by de-miners, at a cost of $300 to $1,000 apiece, 2.5 million more were planted worldw ide.
For manufacturers, land mine production and sales are not especially cost-effective either when compared with other weapons, observes Stephen Goose from the Human Rights Watch Arms Project in Washington. ''Very few companies are dependent on land-mine production for their financial well being,'' he says.
Nothing does the job for less
But for armies and militias, land mines are bargains. Military sources cite reasons why antipersonnel land mines are used:
* Land mines are designed to disable, not kill, making a soldier a burden to his fellow troops and dragging down company morale.
* Antipersonnel land mines boost some kinds of fighting power. The temptation by poorly financed armed groups to rely on cheap, undetectable land mines is enormous. Countries may use land mines as part of a defensive strategy to keep the other side out, or to channel an enemy attack down a particular corridor.
Simply put, no one has found a substitute that can achieve the same objectives in a ground-based conflict for the same amount of money.
Many countries support a moratorium on antipersonnel and mine exports, and some also have established various limits or bans on production.
When domestic laws become too restrictive, however, manufactures are able secretly to transfer their operations elsewhere. Some sources have reported that one of Italy's three largest land mine manufacturers, Valsella, is shifting its mine production to Singapore.
''It's difficult to track this kind of maneuvering,'' says one independent researcher who has collected detailed documentation on parts of the land mine trade for the Swiss anti-land mine campaign.
Last fall, the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed on a resolution calling for the eventual eradication of antipersonnel mines. Western sources have indicated that the push by NGOs, coupled with discreet talks by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with French officials, nudged France in February 1993 to ask the depository of the treaty, the United Nations, for the Review Conference.
The example of Finland shows, however, how difficult it is for nations to agree to tightening restrictions on land-mine use and production.
''Finland does not keep permanent minefields anywhere, not even along the border, but Finland's defense strategy is based first and foremost on land forces,'' says a Finnish diplomat. ''Land mines are part of land-based defense weapons.... Finland does not support a ban.... In the [Convention on Conventional Weapons] context, we have said time and time again, we want to end indiscriminate use of land mines.''
Another Western diplomat says, ''How do you explain to a Finn, who already lives with strict, self-imposed land-mine controls, that he has to accept even greater restrictions so that a civilian in Mozambique can farm? He'll say, 'Why should I be punished because an armed group out of government control is using mines indiscriminately?'''
Advocates of a comprehensive ban say that the only way to eliminate indiscriminate use is to create a stigma around the use of all land mines - much as chemical warfare has become categorically abhorrent. They also argue that it's easier to establish guilt through a total ban.
The indiscriminate use of antipersonnel land mines can prevent whole populations from returning to their homes after armed conflict has ended. But sometimes fear isn't enough to keep civilians away from them: A teenager who collects water in a land mine infested area, for example, may not have a safer place to go.
Current de-mining efforts, expensive and slow, barely make a dent in the problem. But that doesn't mean money spent on de-mining is wasted.
One success story is El Salvador's relatively thorough de-mining following a decade of conflict and population displacement: Former adversaries agreed to identify and clear the areas they knew or suspected had been mined. El Salvador also engaged, at the same time, in a country-wide mine-awareness campaign. Most of the funding for this enormous undertaking came from outside donors.
But El Salvador is an exceptional case. De-mining efforts alone are insufficient to root out the problem at its source and to make civilian land safe.
What happens to land mines in the Review Conference will impact the use of other kinds of weapons as well.
An ICRC legal experts cautions that condoning antipersonnel land-mine use opens the door to legally and morally tolerating newer kinds of small arms, such as blinding lasers, which set out to disable permanently without killing and cannot discriminate between civilian and military targets.
Nations agree that the present antipersonnel land-mine proliferation is a peacetime horror. The Review Conference in Vienna is only one marker along a twisting road to a solution. ''How the issue moves forward after the review conference,'' observes a senior Western diplomat, ''will depend a lot on public opinion.''