A Ban We Can All Agree On
One of television's most haunting commercials, in my opinion, is the long-running series urging viewers to sponsor children in foreign lands, "for just 70 cents a day," less than the cost of a cup of coffee. If you're like me, your first response is compassion, followed by the realization that other actions, individual and collective, might do more to improve the world than this particular charity. Indeed, much of the world's hunger arises not from a lack of food or financial generosity but rather from political problems or civil strife.
Don't get me wrong: All too often, we Americans are the direct or indirect political cause of hunger and suffering. Land mines are a case in point. Our own military has been one of the world's greatest purveyors of anti-personnel mines, and the legacy of our own and other's use of land mines is beyond estimate.
Statistics can hardly begin to tell the gruesome tale of the world's annual land mine carnage. Since 1975, mines have exploded under one million people, currently killing at an estimated 800 people per month. Although 55 percent of land mine victims die before receiving medical attention, the 800-deaths-per-month figure does not include hundreds of injuries and other loss because of land mines.
Most sadly, children are the most frequent victims of land mines. Kids often can't read posted warnings and blunder to their deaths unknowingly. In many cases, children are attracted by the strange shiny objects buried just below the surface. In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union is alleged to have specifically targeted children by designing mines in the shape of butterflies and toys. In Cambodia and Angola, hundreds of children have met their end after building toy cars and trucks using mines for wheels.
Like many indiscriminate weapons of war, land mines mainly kill civilians. Unlike other weapons, however, land mines long outlast the enemies and threats they were emplaced to kill. Mines will remain a threat over a century after their laying.
What I find most tragic is that the threat of land mines is rising. Although about 130,000 mines are cleared in a typical year, an astonishing two million are laid down at the same time. Right now, over 110 million active land mines lie in wait for succeeding generations of victims. We can expect the annual toll in human lives to go up.
The commercials exhort us to commit "the cost of a daily cup of coffee" to save a child's life. At the current going rate, a land mine costs just three dollars, the cost of a cup of mochaccino at Starbucks. You can lay down your own bed of mines at the rate of 1,000 mines per minute. Yet it can cost between $300 and $1,000 to remove a single land mine; you couldn't clear the world's land mines for the price of all the coffee in the world.
Unfortunately, we're a long way from a political solution to the land mine problem. The United States could be taking a significant step toward ending land mines. But President Clinton chose to reject outright a proposed international ban on land mines last month. Since then, however, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and their campaign coordinator Jody Williams.
The U.S. military remains a major obstacle to a ban. The Pentagon argues that a ban would be meaningless because China, Russia, and most rogue states would never sign on. Further, they argue that American land-mines are self-detonating, meaning they explode after a set length of time and thus do not remain years after emplacement. Finally, American mines are used in only a few fenced off areas, such as along the demilitarized zone in Korea. The military, backed by many in Congress, argues that what the world really needs is a ban on "dumb" mines - mines that remain in the ground after the need for them has ended. Well-intentioned though it may be, a dumb mine treaty would ban all mines except those used by the United States and its allies. If the United States winds up insisting on such a loophole, there will be no ban at all.
The argument over dumb mines is spurious. American support for a combination ban and boycott would exert a powerful moral force. Land mines have been likened to chemical weapons in their indiscriminate effect, and the chemical weapons ban has been followed by some of the worst tyrants. Even if a mine ban resulted in only a 10 percent drop in mine laying, presumably hundreds of innocent lives would be saved.
Even many military commanders recognize the need for a mine ban. After all, our own soldiers are at risk: Bosnia is the country with the highest density of mines per land area, with over 150 mines per square mile. While he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili came out in favor of a mine ban and a ban also has the support of retired General Norman Schwarzkopf.
The United States is wrong to oppose a total ban on land mines. The human and economic cost of these weapons is beyond measure. We should follow the direction of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and, once and for all, consign these weapons to the arsenal of shame.