20 August 2005

Hard weapons for soft targets

By Marguerite Finn

Human Rights Watch published a report on August 3 2005, indicating that the George W Bush administration would soon resume production of antipersonnel mines, in a move that is at odds with both the international community and previous US policy.

This coming December, the Pentagon will decide whether or not to begin producing a new type of antipersonnel land mine called a 'Spider'. The first of these mines would then be scheduled to roll out in early 2007. Funds have already been earmarked for Spider's production: the Pentagon requested 1.3bn dollars for the mine system - as well as for another mine called the Intelligent Munitions System, which is expected to be fully running by 2008.

Landmines continue to kill or injure between 15,000 and 20,000 people annually. Many more suffer and die as a result of the indirect but equally lethal impact of landmines as an obstacle to sustainable development. Landmines render potential agricultural land unusable and so contribute to food shortages and nutrition deficit. Landmines restrict access to potable water and thus contribute to diarrhoeal diseases, the greatest cause of preventable death on the planet. Landmines stop schools from being built and hinder the construction and maintenance of roads - with devastating economic and social effect. Landmines breed insecurity that tears the social fabric of vulnerable states and creates further instability.

So why does the most militarily powerful nation on earth still need to produce these deadly devices?

The US has not officially used antipersonnel mines since the 1991 Gulf War, when it scattered more than 100,000 landmines from planes over Iraq and Kuwait. In 1996 President Bill Clinton said the US "would seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel mines". The Mine Ban Treaty became international law on March 11997. In February 2004, however, the Bush administration abandoned all pretence of joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty (the Ottawa Convention), saying: "The United States will not join the Ottawa Convention because its terms would have required us to give up a needed military capability -- Landmines still have a valid and essential role protecting United States forces in military operations - no weapon currently exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines."

Steve Goose, Director of Human Rights Watch Arms Division, says: "We are beginning to see the bitter fruit of the new Bush administration land mine policy. The US appears well on the way to resuming production of antipersonnel mines. Renewed export and renewed use of these inhumane weapons will not be far behind."

The Pentagon has yet to confirm or deny reports that the US government intends to deploy a remote-controlled antipersonnel land mine system called "Matrix" in Iraq. Twenty-five of these mine systems, which can be detonated from a distance via radio signal, were allegedly sent to Iraq in May of this year for use by the US Army's Stryker Brigade. At the same time, US First Lady Laura Bush was entertaining at the White House Farah Ahmedi, the Afghan teenager who lost her leg to a landmine in Afghanistan and now lives in Chicago. On May 5, Farah joined Adopt-A-Minefield as Youth Ambassador to encourage young people to become more involved in helping resolve the global landmine problem.

Laura Bush may work just as hard in America as Sir Paul McCartney does here in the UK to promote the work of 'Adopt-A-Minefield' and help rid the world of the impact of landmines - but what is the point of all their hard work if as fast as they clear one mine field, the US military is busy developing new and nastier antipersonnel mines to contaminate yet more countries?

Given the immensity of international support for the banning of antipersonnel land mines, if the Pentagon does resume production of these weapons, diplomatic problems are certain to ensue - and so they should do. The 145 parties to the Ottawa Convention are forbidden to "assist" others in acts prohibited by the treaty. Therefore US military allies could also be at risk of breaching the treaty in joint military operations where antipersonnel mines are being used. November 3 2005 has been designated as "No More Landmines Day". Surely the best thing we can all do for world peace between now and then would be to point out to our MPs, councillors and Rotarians (who do a lot of work with Adopt-A-Minefield UK) the dreadful irony of raising funds to clear mines from one patch of land only to have our government, or that of our closest ally, infest new lands with new mines.