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Comment: Mine ban a fight of "human compassion"

Yves Sandoz is director of law and principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

DESPITE support for a total ban on anti-personnel mines by nearly half of the 51 member states participating in

the recent final session of landmine negotiations at the UN in Geneva, only minimal restrictions on their use were

adopted following two years of tortuous negotiations. In 11 or 12 years, all anti-personnel mines should be detectable

and those scattered outside marked minefields, by air, artillery or other means, should self-destruct after thirty

days. Contrary to some reports, long-lived mines will remain available for production, export and indiscriminate

use. Regrettably, these measures, which had to be adopted by consensus, will do nothing for the civilian who steps

on such mines, though they may eventually speed up clearance efforts. They are unlikely to significantly reduce

the horrendous levels of landmine casualties. The practice of consensus has ensured that an international humanitarian

crisis is met with only the most modest and measured legal response.

Although the review conference of the 1980 UN convention on certain

conventional weapons, which was the framework for recent negotiations,

was unable to agree on a ban or even significant limits on landmine use

it did establish some important principles. Its rules will now apply to

internal armed conflicts. Those using landmines are to be held

responsible for their clearance. The location of all mines used should

be recorded. Missions of humanitarian agencies such as the

International Committee of the Red Cross are to be assisted when mines

prevent their reaching the victims of conflict. But these provisions

will be difficult to implement. Poor armies and insurgents are unlikely

to have the expertise or resources for mine clearance. And the location

of new hi-tech mines, designed to be remotely-delivered over long

distances, will be virtually impossible to record.

Fortunately, these modest legal steps do no tell the whole story. The public conscience has responded vigorously

to the images of thousands of innocents maimed and killed by landmines each month and has gone far towards stigmatising

their use, as happened with poison gas earlier this century. Reflecting this trend, some forty states have called

for a total prohibition of anti-personnel mines, twenty-two have renounced the use of these weapons by their own

forces and nine are in the process of destroying their stocks. The hope for potential future victims now lies in

the continued mobilisation of public conscience and in states doing far more than they are legally required to

do. Humanity cannot afford to await consensus before acting on its moral and humanitarian obligations.

The great majority of participating states and even the conference president ended the recent negotiations regretting

that more could not be done. Those who continue to assert that anti-personnel mines are indispensable were challenged

by many states along the lines of the Irish delegate: "To consider that they might be wrong, that the price

in human terms is impossible to justify and that it is high time for common sense, humanitarian concern and simple

compassion... to prevail". And so it may. Canada has already announced an autumn meeting of the growing number

of states supporting a total ban to map out the concrete steps they will take to achieve this. Additional states

are considering the unilateral renunciation of anti-personnel mine use and the destruction of stocks. The Organisation

of American states will consider proposals for an "Anti-personnel mines free zone" in the Americas.

The development of international humanitarian law has always entailed dialogue between humanitarian concerns and

legitimate military requirements. It is also rooted in the "dictates of the public conscience". To those

close to its evolution it is not surprising that the law adapts more slowly than the public conscience or even

state practice.

To promote this essential dialogue the ICRC early this year convened a group of senior military commanders with

experience in landmine warfare to consider the actual historical use and effectiveness of anti-personnel mines.

Their conclusions, now endorsed by top officers from 18 countries, wee unanimous in stating that the limited military

value of these weapons in practice is far outweighed by their appalling humanitarian costs. It is of great importance

that former desert storm commander general Norman Schwarzkopf and fifteen renowned American commanders have also

now appealed for the prohibition of anti-personnel mines as a militarily responsible step.

Taken together, the awakening of the public conscience, the beginnings of dramatic changes in state practice and

authoritative questioning of anti-personnel mine use from within military circles could lead to an end to the use

of these arms in large parts of the world in coming years. On that basis the next review conference of the 1980

convention in 2001, or possibly another forum, could be expected to produce agreement on outlawing this indiscriminate

weapon.

Though attention has recently focused on globally negotiated solutions, the landmine crisis will be ended through

the insistence of the public, through decisions of states which seek to protect their population and territories

from the terrible scourge of these weapons and by the decisions of individual commanders who judge their human

costs unacceptable.

A global legal ban will be the result, not the cause, of such actions. It will be a victory of human compassion

and solidarity. It is the only fitting response to the carnage which continues to cost the lives and livelihoods

of two thousand victims each and every month. The ICRC, together with the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent movement,

will tirelessly continue its efforts with both military and humanitarian organisations to ensure that anti-personnel

mines are banned sooner rather than later.

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