Landmines: A Global Scourge

It is estimated that one out of every 236 people in Cambodia is an amputee. This is a surprisingly low figure, given that there are more landmines planted in Cambodia than there are people (an estimated 10 million mines and a population of 8.6 million).

Cambodia is just one of 64 countries around the world littered with some 100 million anti-personnel landmines. Hidden devices which lie in wait, these mines contain a small amount of high explosives and are intended primarily to maim. They cause 500 deaths or injuries per week—15,000 per year. The victims are overwhelmingly civilians, rather than soldiers, and very often children. Unlike other weapons, landmines continue killing and maiming long after the war has ended.

Mines have been integral to military operations since World War I. They are laid to channel opposing troops into a specific area, to defend army flanks or a border zone, or to prevent anti-tank mines from being disabled. Many countries’ doctrine calls for careful mapping and marking of minefields, and clearance upon completion of the mission. But militaries have often failed to remove their mines. Thus, World War I-era mines turn up in Europe today, and millions of still-lethal mines left from World War II are strewn across the North African desert.

The U.N. estimates that 80,000 mines were cleared in 1993, but some 2.5 million new mines were sown, primarily in civil wars. (Crude anti-personnel landmines can be purchased for as little as $3; removing one mine costs from $200-$1,000.) Over the past decade, both insurgents and government forces have used mines as a cheap means of controlling territory and the movement of civilians. Landmines are often used to extort support from local populations: if food or financial support is not forthcoming, the location of mines is not revealed.

In addition to the enormous human toll, the social and economic costs of mine fields are enormous. Farming, commerce, development, travel and play are hindered where landmines are present, as is the return of refugees.

Approximately 50 countries have produced and exported anti-personnel mines. Some 350 different models are currently available, and innovations in mine warfare demonstrate a truly perverse application of technology. Bounding fragmentation mines pop up before exploding, in order to disperse shrapnel over widest possible area. Mines with little or no metal content have been designed to evade detection. Further impeding demining, some are equipped with "anti-handling" devices, exploding when an effort is made to disable the mine. Most fiendishly, mines masquerading as toys have been developed particularly to appeal to children.

The United States has pioneered in so-called "safe mines," which contain a self-destruct/self-deactivation mechanism. The mine blows itself up after a set period, shortening the lifetime of the mine, but not its lethality. Nor is a "safe mine" able to discriminate between the footfall of a soldier and a child.

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