Anti-personnel mines are designed to wound and permanently disable people. Children are usually killed due to their small size. Often, they are strewn over large areas as armies depart. Being small, the mines are not easily found. Anti-mine technology remains primitive and expensive. Many being made of plastic or wood, metal detectors cannot be used to locate them. Most produced do not have an expiry date. They may lie active in the ground for 50 years.
Anti-personnel mines have killed or maimed more people than chemical, biological and nuclear warfare combined. The combination of new mine design and manufacturing technologies, more producers and more conflicts in which the battlefield is everywhere, has transformed anti-personnel mines from a minor, defensive weapon into a global scourge. Now they are used offensively, to empty or control large areas, ruin economies and terrorize. The extent of the danger from land mines is limiting the repatriation and resettlement of refugees or displaced persons. Especially because of their indiscriminate effect, they represent an exorbitant medical and social cost. Unexploded mines along communications routes and farmlands serious hamper economic recovery and reconstruction of a normal social order.
The landmine was developed and first used by the Confederates during the American Civil War in 1862. In general, over the next five decades, the landmine was used very rarely. But in 1918 the landmine made a comeback to counter another devastating new weapon, the assault tank. From the anti-tank mines were developed the first anti-personnel mines, originally for laying in areas approaching anti-tank minefields so the enemy's soldiers could not remove the larger mines. Even in the Second World War, the landmine was basically a battlefield weapon linked to specific military objectives such as protecting crucial infrastructure. It was during the 1990s, during the Vietnam War, that random dissemination of landmines came into its own.
It was estimated in 1993 that there were more than 100 million mines lying in 60 countries, and another 100 million in stock. They were killing or maiming 800 people worldwide every month, notably around 60 each month in Cambodia and 80 in Iraqi Kurdistan. A quarter of a century after the Vietnam War, hundreds of people are injured or die each month in Laos and Cambodia from encounters with "bombies" scattered by the million by US forces.
A study of 155 countries has revealed that 51 countries have post-conflict mine problems. Of these, nine countries suffer from a severe threat: Angola, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Mozambique, Somalia/northern Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq/Kurdistan. A significant threat is posed to 19 countries. In Afghanistan, where some 10 million mines have been laid, it is estimated that the cost of finding and removing a land mine is US$1-2,000 and that at the present rate it would take 15 years to clear priority zones and 4,300 years to clear them all. The UK simply gave up trying to clear minefields after the Falklands War, marking large uncleared areas.
Landmines affect soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. In 1993, 50,000 land mines were being laid every week in former Yugoslavia to stop refugees returning to "ethnically cleansed" areas. The anti-personnel mine is increasingly an economic and political weapon. In Mozambique, for instance, they have been laid deliberately around schools (thus denying education), in forests (denying firewood) and in plantations (denying crops). The "blast mine" is designed to rip off the lower leg and then shoot parts of the footware, soil and bone up into the shattered limb, usually causing secondary infection and a higher amputation. In Cambodia, where there are 4 to 7 million unexploded mines and 9 million people, that means removing one mine costs £670 -- the equivalent of the annual income of four Cambodians. Anti-personnel mines also constitute a major problem for civilian populations in Iraq (5-10 million mines), Angola (9m), Kuwait (5m), Mozambique (1-2m), Western Sahara (1-2m), Sudan (0.5-2m), Somalia (1-1.5m), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1-1.7m), Croatia (1m), Uganda, El Salvador, Honduras and other places.
More than 50 countries are producing mines and 35 of these are known exporters, with China, Italy, Russia and Brazil in the lead. Over 100 companies are involved in producing over 340 different models of anti-personnel mines with known production totalling more than 500,000 units a year. (but illegal manufacturers and guerrilla and insurgent forces that do not sign international conventions are also producing unknown numbers). Mines are legally regarded as weapons and, as such, are supposed to be subject to stringent export regulation, yet vast numbers are moved around the globe with no regard for the law.
They are cheap to make: Chinese-made mines can cost less than $3, and the popular US-made Claymore, which can propel 700 steel balls forward in a 60 degree arc and kill at a distance of 50 metres, costs $27. France has ended the sale of mines. Belgium has forbidden transfer in and out of the country. Some countries, including the UK, Brazil, Hungary and Poland, claim to have ceased production of landmines, although continuing production may be disguised by manufacturers moving offshore. The USA, with 46 other nations, has proposed a global moratorium, (although itself so far only provided a one-year moratorium on production and use).
The biggest payoff from preventative diplomacy would come from a global agreement to ban the production, export and use of anti-personnel land mines. This one step would shorten future conflicts, drastically reduce civilian casualties, sharply lower the costs of economic reconstruction, prevent the loss of desperately needed agricultural land, allow the return of refugees and protect the lives of peacekeepers and relief workers.
Anti-personnel mines are a poor man's weapon against which the best equipped soldier has few defences.