"CAMBODIA signs Ottawa treaty: no more landmines", proclaims one of many
banners strung around Phnom Penh in honor of the landmine ban treaty signed in Canada
early this month. If only it were that simple.
The reality, experts say, is that the euphoria over a Nobel Peace Prize and an international
mine ban needs to be tempered by a strong dose of realism.
"You can't be anti-ban - undoubtedly the ban is a good thing. But someone experienced
in the field has to put an experienced field view forward. The ban will not be as
effective as anyone hopes or dreams it will be," said Leonard Kaminski, project
coordinator of the demining agency The HALO Trust.
The ban requires signatory nations to stop production, use and export of anti-personnel
mines; pass domestic anti-mine laws; destroy all stockpiles within four years; and
facilitate demining and help for mine victims. Mine injuries kill or maim about 200
people a month in Cambodia.
In response, the Cambodian government has drafted a mine law. Approved by the Council
of Ministers Nov 28, the law prohibits "use, production, holding, business,
import and export" of anti-personnel mines except for use in training.
But Kaminski doubted the effectiveness of such laws. He pointed to Russia, Vietnam
and China, which between them produce over 95% of the mines found by HALO in Cambodia,
but have not signed the treaty.
He emphasized that mines are very cheap, effective weapons. In conflict situations
such as Cambodia's, he said that "there is a market [for mines], and someone
will produce things for that market".
In addition, experts worry that non-signing states, especially those near conflict
zones, may become booming mine production centers.
"Mines may even become more readily available" as an unintended result
of the ban, said Ian Brown, program director of Mines Advisory Group (MAG).
Yet Emma Leslie, press officer of the Cambodia Campaign to Ban Landmines, maintained
that even without the non-signers - including the United States - the ban serves
a useful purpose.
"Getting countries to destroy their stockpiles... dramatically reduces the amount
of mines available in the world. And [the ban] stigmatizes the whole issue [of using
mines]," she said.
That stigma has certainly not trickled down to the resistance fighters in Cambodia,
who are still laying homemade devices, demining agencies confirm. Four days after
the Nobel prize was announced, Khmer Rouge radio claimed its forces had the right
to use "any type of weapon" to defend Cambodia's sovereignty.
"You can take any mortar and the detonator from a grenade and you have a fragmentation
mine," noted Kaminski. "Making explosive devices cannot be controlled."
General Ko Chean, commander of Military Region Five, said that the Khmer Rouge resistance
was using homemade mines, often made of leftover shells stuffed with TNT. "These
homemade mines are as powerful as the real mines," he said.
The resistance, for its part, asserted that the government side is laying mines,
despite repeated government claims to the contrary.
"They are using the old mines they have possessed against us in O'Smach. They
use the Chinese and Russian made mines to support their operations," resistance
spokesman Puth Chadarith said by phone Dec16.
But independent sources said they could not confirm use of commercial mines since
the current civil fighting broke out in July. A September HALO report on the mines
situation on Rte 68 near the resistance base of O'Smach reads: "What is important
is that neither the Funcinpec/Khmer Rouge alliance, nor the CPP forces appear to
have stocks of manufactured mines available."
While government forces around O'Smach may not be laying mines - the weapons are
largely defensive, rather than offensive, experts note - the issue of Cambodia's
mine stockpiles remains murky.
Gen Neang Phat, Defense Ministry chief of military information, told the Post: "The
ministry does not provide the soldiers at the front lines with mines, and even in
the Ministry stock there are no mines at all."
Officials from the quasi-government Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) also said
they had no information about government stockpiles, yet NGOs in the field avow that
large stores do exist.
"They certainly have stockpiles, no question," said Kaminski. "UNTAC
saw them, every second person in demining saw them... I am unaware of any destruction
or deployment or sale of these stockpiles."
"They definitely have mines. How many, that is the question," agreed Serge
Dumortier, coordinator of Handicap International's mine department. He added that
before the government signed a peace deal with Pailin, mines were regularly trucked
to the area from Phnom Penh.
The stockpile situation will not be assessed until after the National Assembly passes
the mine law, according to Niem Chouleng, CMAC's assistant director. He said that
a committee would be formed to count the stocks within 90 days of the bill's passage.
But he estimated the count would take up to 18 months to do.
In line with the Ottawa treaty, the draft law requires CMAC to destroy all Cambodia's
mine stocks within a year of the law's enactment. But the law also reflects a loophole
in the treaty which allows countries to retain "a number" of mines for
training purposes. "The amount of such mines shall not exceed the minimum number
absolutely necessary," reads article 3(1).
MAG's Brown noted that this article was a significant "get-out clause"
that could allow governments to keep as many mines as they wish.
"Of course we support the ban - the only way to stop landmines is to stop making
them and destroy what is above the ground," he added. "[But] the ban is
going to have zero effect [on Cambodia] for the next however many years simply because
of the number of mines still in the ground."
Brown also said that while the ban bandwagon has generated a lot of money for the
issue, he is concerned about where it will all end up.
"I hope money doesn't go into newfangled, sexy [mine clearance] research projects
which don't actually do a great deal," he said, observing that many such projects
have close links to the companies that make mines in the first place, and also to
government defense departments.
HALO officials are concerned that too much emphasis on the "feel-good"
ban will result in less emphasis, financial and otherwise, on the other aspects of
dealing with landmines.
"The mine problem is multifaceted: the ban; awareness; clearance; emergency
services; self-respect and orthopedics; and skills training," said Paul Heslop,
HALO's program manager. "Nobody should focus on any one of them... ban the landmines
is a bit of a fad, when essentially the problem will continue for a lot longer."
Those who work with victims agree. "Many of us are concerned that not enough
attention is being paid to the already huge numbers of amputees - we have to make
a lifetime commitment to their care," said Carson Harte, principal of the Cambodian
School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, who attended the Ottawa conference.
In response, Leslie noted that the language of the ban itself promotes demining and
victim assistance. "In fact [the drive for the ban] has actually promoted the
whole process ... without question it's a promotion of those issues, not taking away
from them." She added that during the Ottawa conference, governments pledged
between $200 and $250 million for demining, including $87 million from the US.
But that money will be a long time in reaching Cambodia, according to Dumortier.
"I went to USAID, and they said we'll never see the color of this money,"
he reported. He was told the process of getting the funds through US Pentagon bureaucracy
could take four or five years.
In the end, experts agree, the main issue for Cambodia is the human cost of mines
already - and still being - laid. Asked Heslop: "In the past five years the
ban has been talked about, how many mines has it talked out of the ground, and how
many have been taken out one leg at a time?"