110 countries have ratified the 1997 Ottawa treaty which bans the use of landmines and requires stockpiles to be destroyed. But the UN estimates that there are still more than 100 million active mines scattered over 70 countries around the globe - plus the same number again in store ready to be laid. America says there are far fewer, but making even 60 to 70 million mines safe remains a major financial, technological and educational challenge.
Anti-personnel mines (APMs) have been used increasingly in the past 20 years to terrorise civilian populations. They are laid to prevent access to or use of farmland, irrigation channels, roads, waterways and public utilities. And while the image is often of buried objects, they can also be mounted on trees, placed in buildings and operated by a variety of trip wires and booby traps - all making detection and elimination more difficult.
And mines might be said to be somewhat over-engineered. Once buried, they can remain active for more than 50 years, long after hostilities have ceased. They continue to maim and kill more than 26,000 civilians every year, most of them women and children. And while APMs are sold for only $3 to $30 each, eliminating a single mine can cost as much as $1,000.
A permanent solution in sight?
The US State Department now believes it is possible for the international community to solve the problem of anti-personnel mines (APMs) permanently. Certainly President Clinton has made it an American goal to eliminate the threat to civilians by 2010 - although the USA has not yet signed the Ottawa treaty and will not until it can find `suitable' alternatives. The European Union (which did sign the Ottawa treaty as did all its member states) has committed itself to a similarly ambitious pledge of elimination over the next 10 to 15 years.
But the scale of the problem can be seen from Hidden Killers 1988: The Global Landmine Crisis, a report from the US Department of State, originally published in 1993 and just updated. "Near the start of this century, 90 percent of wartime casualties were soldiers. As the century wanes, 90 percent are civilians," says Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State in her introduction. And while landmines are not the sole cause, "these hidden killers are cheap to buy, easy to use, hard to detect and difficult to remove."
A message of hope must lie in the results of four years of experience dealing with the problem and obtaining more realistic data. The US State Department is now convinced that the total number of mines in place around the world is 30% to 50% less than first estimated - only 70 million (although interestingly it still quotes from 86 to 102 million in the annex to the report, a figure not much different from the 108 million quoted in the UN 1997 landmine database).
The State Department is also certain that more mines are being removed than are being laid - although the UN calculates to the contrary that 20 are laid for every mine cleared. And the US is sure that the mobilisation of international attention and resources for humanitarian demining will accelerate solutions and dramatically reduce injuries to civilians.
Social costs exceed medical costs
The highest-profile issue that campaigners have raised is casualties to innocent civilians, but the greatest uncertainty lies in the social problems that mines cause. A study of the social costs of landmines in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Mozambique - amongst the most mine-infested countries - indicated that mines affect the daily activities of between 25% and 87% of households.
These costs far exceed the medical treatment and rehabilitation of mine victims, which themselves consume scarce resources: surgical care and fitting orthopaedic appliances alone works out at around $3,000 a patient. Distribution of relief to threatened areas is disrupted. Large areas of potentially highly productive agricultural land remain off-limits for years until declared safe - land which may well be mine-free but needs to be fully surveyed. And reconstruction is slowed markedly, making it difficult for refugees to be returned and resettled.
Over half the world's landmine problem lies in just 12 countries, according to the State Department report - Angola, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia and Somalia in Africa, Cambodia in Asia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in Europe, Nicaragua in Latin America and Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Sudan in the Middle East. Profiles of each country cover the location, impact and casualties, local response and organisation for demining, the successes in mine clearance, mine awareness and victim assistance, international support and the future outlook.
Key role for technology
Technology is playing an increasing role in tackling the problems, particularly those arising from the use of non-metallic mines, which make up over one-third of those now laid. But while mine technology has changed markedly in the past decades, mine detection has not changed much since the Second World War, being done mainly by hand with some form of metal detector and a non-metallic probe. It is slow, expensive and dangerous.
The need is to make mine detection and neutralisation faster, cheaper and more effective, and to get new technology into the field as fast as possible. A major problem is discrimination: it is particularly difficult to differentiate between minimal metal mines and the wide variety of metallic junk - from bullets to tin cans - found in battle areas. The result is a high number of false alerts, all of which have to be checked out carefully.
Various detection techniques are being examined, including ground-penetrating radar, infra-red heat radiation detection, biosensors and gamma-radiation detection. `Signature' databases are being established for known mine types, and these are being disseminated as widely as possible. And suitable data processing systems are being developed to combine data from the different techniques to provide the often poorly-educated operators with clear, user-friendly information.
Mine clearance is also being speeded up using a variety of mechanical methods - from ploughs and rakes to mechanical flails. Total elimination involves either controlled explosion or chemical neutralisation.
The US and the EU are now working closely together to advance development of demining technology. And they are both co-operating with the UN on the establishment of international standards, setting up a network of test and evaluation facilities and drawing up a programme of demonstration projects. The resulting close co-operation between governments, academics, industry and the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) - such as Norwegian Peoples Aid, Mine Action Group or Stiftung Menschen gegen Minen - carrying out the practical demining operations is starting to speed up detection and elimination.
A growing international effort
Resources for humanitarian demining are increasing, with major funding from over 20 countries and the EU being either given directly or channelled through the UN and its mine action service (UNMAS). Switzerland has set up an International Demining Centre in Geneva to support UNMAS in management, communication with local demining organisations, training and sharing of expertise. And several other UN agencies are involved, including UNICEF, UNHCR, OCHA, UNDP and the WHO. However it is essential that donor funding become stable and long-term to allow work to continue on the ground uninterrupted. And investing in technological research for the sake of it without clear understanding of the needs in the field should also be avoided
Hidden killers 1998:
The global landmine crisis
or from Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20401
Removal is only one part of the mine problem. Mine-awareness training is essential to reduce the number of civilian deaths and injuries from landmines. Celebrities have done their bit, and a range of technically sophisticated yet robust solutions has been developed in the form of portable computer training presentations and CD-ROMs. But the chilling necessity to educate children from infancy in how to identify and avoid mine-infested play areas is reflected in comic books jointly sponsored by the US Department of Defense, UNICEF and Time-Warner/DC Comics. These `comics' put myth to practical effect. Superman and the deadly legacy was initially produced for Bosnia. The second-generation version - The hidden killer - features Superman and Wonder Woman in a potentially deadly everyday story and includes a simple game of `spot the minefield'. Distribution started in mid-1998 in Nicaragua through the Ministry of Education. It is available in English and in Spanish, and a Portuguese version is being considered for use in Mozambique and Angola.