CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

March 29, 2001 Clearing the world's land mines is a daunting task





by Sylvain Comeau

Land mines are a weapon of war, but most of their victims are civilians — usually children, who often get killed or maimed long after the war is over.

Elizabeth Hunt is a graduate of the School of Community and Public Affairs and a youth ambassador with UNICEF Canada’s Youth Mine Action Ambassador Program (YMAAP). She discussed the tragedy of land-mine use in a lecture on January 26.

She quoted U.S. Gulf War commander General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, who said that there is no proof that land mines ever made a significant difference in an armed conflict. She also quoted grim official statistics: Every 22 minutes, someone is killed or maimed by a land mine.
“It could be much higher, because land mine accidents are often reported as traffic accidents, or they’re not even reported at all.”

Years of mine-clearing operations have barely scratched the surface of the millions of mines — 110 million is the best estimate — left over from wars, civil and otherwise. An international treaty was signed by 137 countries in 1998, but as recently as last month, Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada in Ottawa, called for greater long-term financial commitments from the treaty signatories, beyond the $500 million pledged in 1998.

Part of that money is earmarked for victim-assistance programs, because victims lose limbs and need care for the rest of their lives. On a recent trip to Cambodia, a country particularly hard hit by mine accidents, Hunt visited rehabilitation centres and saw victims without legs riding makeshift skateboards. She says that prosthetic limbs are not always an option.

“Sometimes a family has to choose between buying a prosthetic limb or buying essentials like food. If a family can’t afford a prosthetic leg, then a child can’t go to school and acquire skills outside of the farm. But they can’t work on the farm either in that condition. So it’s a catch-22.”

The rest of the money pledged for the treaty is used for mine clearing, a painstaking and dangerous process. Tens of millions of mines will have to be cleared by hand.

“Mine clearing is one of the five most dangerous jobs in the world. It is expensive, because it has to be done manually, so it involves a lot of man hours. But that’s still not a very high cost when you compare it to military budgets. It all depends on where a country places its priorities.”

Heavily populated land is the most pressing concern. Egypt has one of the highest concentrations of land mines — they were left over from World War II — but most are in unpopulated stretches of desert. In other areas, like Mozambique, Bosnia and Cambodia, land mines are a serious humanitarian concern, especially for migrants and refugees, who are often or constantly on the move through potentially mined territory.

“One of the problems in Cambodia is that there is a wet and a dry season. During the dry season, a family can arrive in an area and walk around without any problems because the ground is hard. But during the wet season, the ground becomes soft, and suddenly that same safe ground they settled on six months ago is now dangerous.”

Unfortunately, until they are dug up or stepped on, a mine can sit and wait virtually forever for its victim.

One proposed solution, first attempted during the Persian Gulf War, was to create “smart land mines,” with a battery designed to run out in a fixed period of time. But the experiment failed during that war, because the hot sun of the Middle Eastern desert continually recharges the batteries.

“You also never know how long a war will last. What happens if the mine is timed for three years, and the war only lasts six months?”