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Basic Facts: the human cost of landmines

01-01-1995by Louise Doswald-Beck,Peter Herby, Johanne Dorais-Slakmon


 Scope And Nature Of The Crisis  

Mine-laying has become common practice in virtually every conflict situation where the ICRC is present, and the institution is confronted daily with the harrowing consequences of the widespread and indiscriminate use of this deadly weapon. Mines are now proliferating so fast that there are perhaps as many as I 10 million of them spread in 64 countries worldwide, and it is estimated that 2 to 5 million more mines are being laid each year. Scattered like deadly seeds, they kill and maim between 1.000 and 2.000 people per month, most of them innocent civilians.

With an estimated 30 million mines strewn in at least 18 countries, Africa is the continent most severely affected by the large scale sowing of landmines . The most critical situations are found in Angola with more than 9 million mines, in Mozambique with up to 2 million and in Somalia with I million. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan also have to face severe situations, and countries like Rwanda, Liberia and Libya have landmine problems on a smaller scale.

The majority of landmine victims are civilians who step on a mine after armed conflicts has ceased. In some countries, over one-third of all casualties due to landmines are women and children. Landmines are indiscriminate weapons that lie dormant until triggered, be it by a soldier, or a civilian, a friend or a foe, an adult or a child.

They cause excessive suffering to the injured and their families and have devastating effects upon communi ties and their environment for decades after conflicts have ceased.

  A Perverse Use Of Technology  

Two categories of landmines are commonly in use: large antitank mines designed to be triggered by vehicles, and the small inexpensive antipersonnel mines designed specifically to kill or incapacitate a human being.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 340 antipersonnel landmine models have been produced in at least 48 nations around the world.

Their prices vary between US $ 3 and US $ 75 per unit whilst the cost of clearance estimated by the United Nations, including support and logistic costs, is between US $ 300 and US $ 1,000 per mine.

The most common types of antipersonnel landmines are blast mines, usually designed to explode when the victim steps directly on the mine. Other types, such as directional fragmentation and bounding mines, will kill or maim not only the victim activating the mine but also anyone within its effective range. In Angola, for example, at least thirty-seven known types of landmines were used over the past twenty years.

In recent decades the problems caused by landmines have been exacerbated by modem technology, such as the design of undetectable plastic blast mines which render their sighting and their removal extremely difficult. Furthermore, their small size and type of design have tended to attract children to play with them. Models such as " scatterbabies " and " butterfly mines " are cruel examples of the deceptive design.

Danger to civilians is further increased by the development of remote-delivery methods capable of deploying enormous numbers of mines over vast tracts of land from a distance, for example by aircraft, rocket or artillery. These methods facilitate the random, undetectable an d unmapped use of landmines.

In the Quito Cuanvale municipality of Angola for example, of the 330,000 mines that were sown, the location of only 80,000 is known.

 Medical Effects: Carnage Among Innocent Victims  

It must be stressed that only a small fraction of all landmine victims actually reach treatment sites; ICRC surgeons assume that up to 50% of mine victims die on site within minutes of the blast. When they do not kill, landmines inflict appalling injuries, often resulting in amputation or serious disablement.

The ICRC experience in 1992 showed that 27% of mine victims required major amputation of the lower limbs. Only 18% of the wounds were confined to the legs: the arms, genitals, chest, face, and eyes were also damaged.

Additional figures for Hargeisa hospital in Somalia, in 1992, showed that mines have maimed at least 23,000 people, and that 74.6 % of the victims were children between 5 and 15 years old.

The amputation rate in some African countries, according to a Medical Educational Trust Report (March 1993), gives an indication of the scale of the problem:

Angola: 1 per 470 persons

Somalia: 1 per 1.650 persons

Mozambique: 1 per 1.862 persons

Uganda:1 per 1. I 00 persons

The suffering caused by landmines is further compounded by the lack of medical infrastructure in the majority of the countries affected. In most conflicts, particularly those involving non-conventional guerrilla forces, evacuation can be as horrific for the mine victim as the initial blast. Some victims lie for hours in their blood waiting for help; others are transported without treatment or anaesthetics and by any means available, often meaning a bumpy ride in a truc k, or on a horse or a camel for hours on end.

Patients undergoing amputation normally need two major operations; in ICRC hospitals, 66% of patients treated require additional operations because of delays in evacuation (only 28 % of casualties arrive at a hospital within six hours of the explosion). Even when civilians injured by mines reach medical facilities, they often fail to receive proper care because blood supplies, surgical instruments, x-ray films, anaesthesia and antibiotics are unavailable.

Farmers, nomads, herders or fleeing refugees are the ones who suffer most from the random use of landmines, in other words those who must rely on their physical fitness for their basic subsistence and can least obtain or afford medical help.

Landmine injuries place considerable strain on the social and medical infrastructures of countries. Carrying out amputations and providing mine-blast victims with prostheses and rehabilitation is costly in terms of time, skill and materials. Mines injuries not only deplete blood supplies in countries where blood transfusion services are insufficient, but they also divert scarce resources away from other needs such as disease prevention and primary health care.

In 1994, the ICRC manufactured a total of 3,117 prostheses in orthopaedic workshops located in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan; 1,917 patients were fitted with artificial limbs. In Angola, between 1979 and 1992, the ICRC workshops produced 12.421 prosthesis but had to close down in 1993 because of the security conditions. However, the ICRC orthopaedic centre of Bomba Alta in Huambo will reopen this year and a supplementary support will be brought to the Neves Bendinha workshop in Luanda.

 Devastating Social, Economic, And Environmental Impacts  

Landmines can seriously hinder the ability of a country to rebuild its post-war economy. In most mine-infested areas, amputees who can no longer fend for themselves often become a burden to the family, which must provide sustenance. When the victim is alone, the burden falls upon the community who will often disintegrate in areas where there are high casualty rates.

The effects of landmines on community life can be devastating, especially when with peace, communities try to rebuild their homes and villages, find new farmland and find new markets for their goods, with the ever present threat of landmines.

Wherever deployed, mines outlive their legitimate military objective: at the end of the conflict they continue to contaminate the environment for decades to come. Large tracts of land cannot be cultivated and remain uninhabitable.

This is the case in Angola where an estimated 33 % of the territory is unusable due to landmines: for example, Mavinga Valley, a fertile area in the Southeast, is largely abandoned due to landmines.

* In southern Sudan, mines have paralysed agricultural production, trapping thousands of people in an enormous impoverished and drought-stricken prison.

* In Somalia, hundreds of thousands of mines scattered across pastoral land terrorise nomadic herders and deny access to grazing areas.

* In the South of Mozambique, major roads, railroads, power lines, and agricultural lands as well as village's gardens, clinics and schools were heavily mined in order to terrorise local communities. This has caused major problems to the refugee repatriation as well as to economic reconstruction.

* In Zimbabwe, one million acres of land were so heavily mined during the war that they are now totally deserted.

* In Ethiopia, a large number of mines are located in desert pastures. Casualti es are estimated to be " routine " among people and livestock.

* In Lybia, according to an United Nations study, about 27 % of the total arable land of the country is still covered by minefields dating back to World War Two.

 Impact On Humanitarian And International Aid Costs  

Mines not only burden health services and reduce economic self-sufficiency, but also have ruinous consequences for international humanitarian aid: the indiscriminate use of mines adds tremendously to the difficulties encountered in field operations. Necessary security measures can multiply by 25 the cost of humanitarian aid, as in many areas where mines have been laid, air transport is often the only link to needy civilian populations.

In 1993, no less than 13 Red Cross / Red Crescent and ICRC relief workers were killed and 12 others injured by mine blasts while trying to gain access to isolated communities in Senegal, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

 Mine Clearance: An Urgent Necessity  

Landmines are very seldom removed. Where conflicts are raging, new mines are being laid faster than old ones are being taken out.

These difficulties are compounded by the legal void as regard to responsibility for mine clearance and by the shortage of financial resources and trained personnel for such operations. Mine clearance and disposal are at present very primitive, slow and hazardous. Mechanical means which have been developed are not sufficiently effective. Modem plastic mines do not respond to metal detectors and the only sure way to clear mines is often to go across the area inch by inch, using prodders such as bayonets, knives and screwdriver-like instruments to probe the ground.

Mine disposal experts indicate that an average of one person is killed and two are injured for every 5,000 mines cleared. These figures can be worsened in some critical situation when the training and the material is not sufficient: in early 1991, the Somali National Movement began demining in northern Somalia under the leadership of a soldier with demolition and demining training. The clearance force included 60 men; 40 % were killed or injured by mines in the first six months of the year.

In Angola, according to the Department of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations, more than 2,000 mine clearers will be needed during a period from 6 to 10 years to obtain satisfactory results.

According to a Report of the UN Secretary General (September 1994) " the I I 0 million landmines currently buried world-wide will cost approximately $ 33 billion for clearance alone. Last year, the international community allocated approximately $ 70 million to clear roughly 100,000 landmines. During the same period, however, roughly 2.000.000 more landmines were laid, leaving the international community with a annual " demining deficit " of some 1.900.000 mines last year, and adding another $ 1.4 billion, at the same annual cost of clearance, to the aggregate cost of clearing the world's landmines. "

 The ICRC And The Review Of The 1980 UN Weapons Convention  

Pursuant to its mandate to work for the mitigation of the suffering caused by armed conflicts, in particular to work for the faithful application of international humanitarian law and to prepare its development, the ICRC has over recent years taken a number of initiatives in relation to landmines.

The work on the Review Conference of the 1980 UN Weapons Convention which regulates the use of landmines was initiated at a Symposium of Experts held in Montreux (Switzerland) in April 1993. The results of the deliberations of Experts, as they stood after discussion, were included in a Report which was sent to all Governments in August 1993.

In parallel, as a contribution towards a much needed change in the law, the ICRC launched, in co-operation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation, a world-wide campaign. It is aimed at raising awareness , among governments and the public, of the devastating human consequences of the indiscriminate use of landmines. In February 1994, the ICRC called upon the international community to take action to prohibit the use, the production and transfer of all antipersonnel landmines and of blinding laser weapons. The ICRC call for a total ban was supported by the UN Secretary General, LTNHCR, UNICEF and over a hundred concerned NG0s.

At the invitation of the UN Secretary General, the ICRC also participated to the four meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts to prepare amendments to the UN Weapons Convention.

This Group met three times in 1994 and held its fourth and final meeting in January 1995. Its recommendations will be sent to all participating governments and to the Review Conference which will be held from 25 September to 13 October 1995 in Vienna, Austria. At the Review Conference States Parties will consider amendments to the Convention submitted by the Group of Experts and may adopt them, as presented or in revised form, as new legally binding international norms.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was asked to prepare for the Group of Experts background documentation and to present proposals covering both land-mines and other weapon systems which could be considered as the subjects of new protocols. At the recommendation of Sweden and the ICRC the Group of Governmental Experts has recommended that a new Protocol prohibiting the use of blind ing laser weapons be considered for adoption by the Review Conference.

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