Mine ban policy carries a catch

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am

Out with the old, in with the new - that appears to be the effect of the British Government's much-lauded change of policy this week to rid itself of one of the scourges of Asia, anti-personnel mines.

While many, myself included, were at first encouraged by the news that the British Government was apparently about to announce a U-turn in military policy and call for a global ban on anti-personnel mines we were, alas, premature in our jubilation.

Of course we should never have been so naive in the first place as to believe that the British Government would voluntarily give up anything. As Hong Kong knows only too well there is often a catch to a policy emanating from Whitehall.

And so there is with the decision to remove Britain's anti-personnel mines. When the announcement was made the Ministry of Defence made clear that it would remove just half its stock of mines - meanwhile proceeding with plans to replace the other half with new smart mines which destroy themselves after a period.

David Davis, a Foreign Office minister, told Parliament that should an international ban be agreed, Britain would renounce all anti-personnel mines and destroy them, but only if there was an international ban.

I have only ever come across a marked-off minefield once. Outside Zagreb airport in Croatia waiting for a Hercules flight down to Sarajevo I sat down on the grass verge, maybe four metres across, outside the terminal. A soldier came running over yelling a word which appears to be the same in every language.

Small signs I had missed indicated the whole verge was mined from the brief time in the early 1990s when Croatia kicked the former Yugoslav forces off its territory. Nobody had got around to, or perhaps even knew, how to remove them.

Anti-personnel mines are the curse of Bosnia today and even more so in Asian countries from Cambodia - which reckons it will take a century to clear its agricultural land of the threat - to Afghanistan.

There are an estimated 100 million small mines around the world, which maim or kill about 20,000 people a year.

While anti-tank mines are fairly easy to detect and require a heavy weight to set them off, anti-personnel mines are often made from plastic and other undetectable materials. They are not designed to kill outright, but to inflict horrible wounds, which, besides crippling the victims, overload the medical services.

Britain has admittedly not exported them for several years but Canada, Germany and Australia have declared a total ban, the Pentagon is thinking about it, and even Russia has a moratorium on their sales. So Britain faced potential isolation. But instead of being straightforward and honest, the UK, one of the biggest exporters of arms in the world, has come up with a face and sales-saving formula.

There are serious flaws in this new policy. For a start there is no immediate prospect of any international agreement on how long self-destructing mines are to remain active.

Their self-destruct capability is also not infallible. You can hardly expect refugees to return with gusto to land which might be only 90 per cent clear of mines.

One can cynically, or maybe pragmatically, argue that if technologically-advanced Britain can make a breakthrough in 'smart mine' technology then it could open up an enormous market for itself.

The British Ministry of Defence has refused to face the big moral question of whether it should have anything to do at all with anti-personnel mines, which may act as short-term deterrents to attack but which remain for so long that their principal casualties are civilian.