One Blast After Another

FOR months now we have been treated to a fine spate of reporting and leaking about North Korea's alleged nuclear-weapons program. Opinion pages regularly feature warnings about an impending crisis, and people in many capitals are doubtlessly staying up late at night working hard to forestall it.

But these officials seem to worry very little about an insidious weapon that maims and kills dozens of people every day: the land mine. There may be as many as 100 million mines tucked underfoot in some 60 countries.

Thousands of lives are ended or marred each year by these lethal leftovers of a dozen civil and guerrilla wars. As the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch puts it, land mines are a weapon of mass destruction - in slow motion.

Until very recently, even the press has seemed unmoved by this scourge. It's a harder story to tell; land-mine tragedies are accompanied not by a mushroom cloud, but by one small explosion after another, day in and day out, in countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador.

Sometimes it's possible to think that one can't be shocked by another example of man's inhumanity to man. But ponder the unconscionable irresponsibility of randomly scattering antipersonnel devices in a field of arable land. Suppose they are the plastic, puck-sized bombs, which are almost impossible to detect - except perhaps by unsuspecting children. What were these men thinking?

The indiscriminate, unmapped sowing of land mines has to be one of war's most morally obtuse acts. The devices can maim a civilian, render precious farmland off limits, and kill valuable livestock for decades after a war ends. Everyone knows it. But governments and guerrillas have nonetheless planted millions of them and continue to do so.

And ponder the industry. The Arms Project says companies in almost 50 countries produce 10 million mines a year, on average. Many of these firms are state-owned.

Fortunately, something can be done. An international coalition is already working toward a global ban on land-mine production, stockpiling, export, and use. The United States Congress has just extended for three years a moratorium on the sale and export of antipersonnel land mines by American companies. (The Pentagon, however, is allowed to produce the devices for its own use, and does so.) Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the backer of the moratorium, is pushing the United Nations to work toward a global ban on exports.

A little more official action on this issue would go a long way.

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