Like a deadly disease long absent and assumed conquered, the land mine, that scourge of the battlefield of World War I, has re-emerged on a scale unimagined and with hideous, unanticipated effects.
While today’s global land mine crisis began as a military problem, it is now an ongoing humanitarian disaster.
The United Nations estimates that, in the course of recent civil and international strife, more than 100 million mines have been laid in 62 countries. These mines have been placed not only in combat zones but also in areas of purely civilian and commercial activity, thus bringing terror to large populations.
In the hinterlands and countrysides of the world, the legless, blinded, ravaged bodies of the living are an increasingly common sight. They are condemned to a future of marginal social and economic existence and place an impossible burden on nations striving for development.
Mines have been planted around key economic installations, including electric plants and power lines, water treatment plants, road networks, market centers and port facilities.
People continue to use land that they may or may not know is mined because they must cultivate their fields, fetch water, collect firewood or need a place for their children to play. Elsewhere, vast tracts of potentially productive land have been turned into no-man’s lands by extensive mining.
After troops withdraw, land mines remain in the ground as brutal reminders that successful peace-building and development are still beyond the horizon.
A U.S. government report estimates that the worldwide total of deployed land mines increases by 500,000 to 1 million each year. Of the four categories of antipersonnel mines - blast, fragmentation, directional and bounding devices - the blast mine is most common.
Blast mines are usually hidden underground and designed to activate when the victim steps on the mine. Detonation drives fragments of the mine, along with dirt, gravel, footwear and surrounding vegetation, up the victim’s legs and body. When not instantly deadly, blast mines almost always obliterate limbs or result in surgical amputation.
The effect on individuals is psychologically devastating. The demand on a poor nation’s health, welfare and social system is overwhelming.
Advances in technology are worsening the global mine crisis. The present generation of mines is generally made of plastic with a small metal component, which makes them difficult to detect with metal-searching devices.
Mine-clearance technology, in contrast, has advanced little since the 1940s. New techniques are badly needed, yet relatively little money has been spent on mine-clearance research.
Some research has been undertaken by private companies, but until governments of developed nations become fully involved, new techniques will not be developed and humanitarian mine clearance will remain a slow and dangerous process.
Clearing mines means working by hand, with one specialist wielding a metal detector and another on his knees, probing the ground with a stick. Current detection equipment is just 60 percent to 90 percent effective in finding mines made with a minimum of metal.
Even locating mines is difficult. Few armies make adequate minefield maps. Soldiers often lack the skills to do so.
Maps can also quickly become obsolete and dangerously inaccurate in fluid battle situations because minefields may be altered by warring factions. Frequently, no attempt is made to map, record, or mark the minefields - to the subsequent hazard of the local population.
The United Nations funds many of the mine-clearance programs around the world. The two prerequisites for U.N. assistance are consent by national authorities and security for U.N. personnel when removing mines in militarily sensitive areas.
The proliferation of mines has created a triple crisis:
Individuals are the victims of inhumane weapons.
Developing nations are unable to go forward with economic and social programs.
Families, localities and nations are compelled to bear an increasingly heavy medical and social burden.
Increased funding and stronger political support for this vastly important effort are now urgently needed.
MEMO: Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the former secretary-general of the United Nations.