The need to follow the Nobel lead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 1997, 12:00am

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its leader Jody Williams is, as the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has put it, 'a victory for every child and mother and for all vulnerable societies'. It is also a victory for compassion over cold military calculation and a powerful message to generals, politicians and managers and shareholders in the defence industry. Images of mutilated, civilian victims flashed nightly across television screens have brought to the attention of a worldwide public the price of sowing the fields of conflict with the seeds of pain and death in the name of security or profit.

Such messages will be particularly unwelcome to the leaders of the United States, China and Japan, none of whom have yet accepted last month's Ottawa agreement to outlaw anti-personnel landmines. The US and Japan, especially, were greatly embarrassed by the emotional pressure to initial the agreement after the death of Britain's Princess Diana. Her personal involvement in the anti-landmine movement had given a welcome filip to the treaty initiative and her contribution was acknowledged by the Nobel committee.

Now Washington and Tokyo will be further embarrassed that President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, who had kept his country out of the earlier treaty negotiations, yesterday used the Peace Prize award to announce his support for a ban and to promise to work towards signing the accord. It is not clear if he has, in fact, agreed that the treaty is one he can sign in its present form, or rather that he will be ready to put his name to it when the international signing ceremony takes place in December. But Mr Yeltsin has certainly shown up President Bill Clinton, who has been forced to declare once again his defiance of American public opinion and his 'rock-solid' opposition to the ban.

The award is unlikely to trouble China so much, despite the international attention it brings. Beijing has a low opinion of the Nobel Peace Prize committee already. It would rather have an award for a campaigner like Ms Williams, who is equally critical of the US, than see a prize put aside for jailed dissident Wei Jingsheng, who was also nominated this year.

Nevertheless, the time has come for China, as much as for other powers, to re-examine the rationale for sowing landmines. The argument that such weapons are necessary to protect a long and unpatrollable border does not justify their use at a time when none of its neighbours is powerful, expansionist or suicidal enough to contemplate an invasion of Chinese territory.

From a narrow military point of view, Washington has an argument for refusing to join a treaty which would force it to remove mines on the Korean Peninsula. Its 37,000 troops there face an unpredictable regime in the North; and the South Korean capital, Seoul, which is home to a quarter of the population, is too close to the border for comfort. South Korea has no effective forward defences against missiles and, without mines, would be more vulnerable to tank and infantry attack.

Yet the same argument could be made in many battle zones and potential points of conflict around the world. On today's crowded globe, international hotspots are as likely to be in densely populated areas as in vast empty deserts or inhospitable mountain ranges.

The principle of a ban remains sound. If the US is unwilling to commit itself to finding alternative methods of defence which are less likely to leave a threatening legacy for post-war civilian populations, it will be all the harder to persuade others to fulfil their treaty obligations. Clearing minefields is not only dangerous and expensive, it makes twitchy generals more likely to exert pressure on their political masters. That is something few governments would voluntarily risk, even those which have their military under firm civilian control.

There is another problem which the concentration on treaties and legal bans tends to ignore: landmines, particularly small anti-personnel mines, are the ideal warfare weapon for guerilla forces and insurgents. They are cheap and simple to make, easy to disguise and readily available to terrorists and rebel groups. So long as they are being made, their use by such organisations can never be ruled out.

Yet it is the world's state-controlled armies and industrial arms manufacturers who are by far the biggest makers, salesmen and sowers of anti-personnel mines - and thus the biggest killers of farmers and children. It is high time for President Clinton to change his mind and for the United States to lead other reluctant powers down the road to a ban, rather than looking for excuses to continue the use of a weapon that civilised nations should regard as barbaric.