The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Defense Monitor, July 1996 - Center for Defense Information


Those whose business it is to defend the use of weaponry offer the argument that weapons, in and of themselves, are neutral, that they are not good or bad but can be used to either end depending on the will of their owner. There is one weapon that can truly be called "evil": landmines. They are known as hidden killers, weapons of mass destruction in slow motion, or the perfect soldier which never sleeps or misses. They have killed or maimed more people than have been killed by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons combined. Unlike other weapons, most mines are designed to maim.

It is the only weapon in existence which kills more people after a conflict ends than while it is fought. A mine has no target and recognizes no cease-fire. Unable to distinguish between the steps of a combatant or an innocent civilian it lies in wait, or self-destruction. Disarming them silent and hidden, to kill and maim. all would cost from $20 to $30 billion. Every week approximately 500 It is estimated that there are also an people around the world, almost all additional 100 million mines in of them civilians, are killed or maimed stockpiles around the world. by antipersonnel landmines.

The UN estimates that 100 million mines, or more, may be deployed in 62 nations. That's one mine in the ground for every 50 humans on earth. The vast majority of landmines in use today have no means of self-neutralization or self-destruction. Disarming them all would cost from $20 to $30 billion. It is estimated that there are also an additional 100 million mines in stockpiles around the world...

Crisis Areas

The three nations with the largest landmine problem today are Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia. Collectively, they are besieged by an estimated 28 million mines and suffer 22,000 casualties every year (85% of the world total). The Cambodian conflict may be the first war in history in which mines claimed more victims, both combatant and civilian, than any other weapon.

The problem is greatest in Africa where mines have been used extensively. Approximately 20 million mines are strewn across nearly one half of Africa's countries, killing over 12,000 people a year.

The large number of amputees in some mine-infested countries create entire societies which can be described as handicapped. In one district of Afghanistan, 1.95% of the population were killed and a further 3.5% suffered injury from landmines in a 2-year period; one in every 18 persons. By comparison, in the United States there is one amputee for reasons of trauma or disease per 22,000 inhabitants.

Mines also affect refugee populations by causing death and injuries on the way home and they make earning a living and reestablishing a normal life much more difficult. The estimated 30 million mines in Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Cambodia inhibit and endanger the return and reintegration of 11.5 million refugees and internally displaced people.

Military Use

Mine warfare began as the practice of digging underneath fixed military fortifications to cause their collapse. Technological advancement shifted mine warfare from attacking fixed targets to stopping moving troops and vehicles, particularly tanks. Mines were first used this way on a broad scale in World War I. Mine warfare was firmly established in World War II, when the landmine in its common form--encased explosives fitted with fuses or firing devices for activation by the victim-- was used by all sides. During the war mines were laid by the millions. As a result massive mine contamination still persists today. Minefields in Europe and Egypt and Libya, for example, still remain a danger. There is no record of WWII participants assisting contaminated nations to effect large-scale mine clearance. The same applies to other major conflicts since then such as Korea, Vietnam, and parts of Africa.

In the post-WW II era the nature of mine warfare changed. No longer were mines laid in static, relatively well-marked fields. What we have seen increasingly over the past several decades is that mines have changed from being primarily a defensive, limited theater weapon to a weapon that is used offensively in a strategic sense, where it is used to create refugee flows, or to empty vast stretches of territory, or to deny a population its food supply. These offensive uses directed primarily against civilians are outlawed under the laws of war.

The Vietnam War crystallized the change. The Vietcong used mines to intimidate selected local populations. They mined roads nightly, making mine clearance a daily task. Used in a manner and scale never before seen by U.S. forces mines became a significant cause of American casualties. Of approximately 41,840 U.S. ground forces killed in battle during the Vietnam war, approximately 16% were killed by mines or grenades. In some units mine casualties were even greater. In the last half of 1968, for example, 57% of all casualties in the US. 1st Marine Division were attributed to mines and booby traps. It is not only mines laid by the enemy that are a threat. Mines laid by US. forces often backfire. General Gray, a former commandant of the Marine Corps, said he's seen more Americans killed by our own landmines than enemy forces killed by U.S. mines.

This trend was accelerated by the use of scatterable mines, delivered by air, artillery, or tank weapons. Speed and remote delivery greatly increased their offensive potential. However, the greater ability to deliver mines has made mine clearance much more difficult. Accurate marking and recording of minefields is impossible. With the advent of high-volume dispensing systems, responsibility for mine use has been decentralized to other army units, eroding the role of engineers. The smaller size and lethality of scatterable mines have also increased the density of minefields, further increasing the danger to civilians.

Military Utility

It has long been taken as gospel that mines have a legitimate military purpose and as such play an indispensable role in land warfare. But such assertions are questionable. One recent study of 26 conflicts since World War II, by retired British Brigadier and former U.N. demining expert Patrick Blagden, found that "even when used on a massive scale, they have usually had little or no effect on the outcome of hostilities. No case was found in which the use of anti-personnel mines played a major role in determining the outcome of a conflict."

It is not well appreciated that international law allows nations to impose legal limits on the weapons used by armies engaged in conflict. Weapons bans are based on two general rules which have evolved over the years and are incorporated into the body of international law related to armed conflict. The most recent and authoritative statement of these rules is in the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, adopted in 1977.

The first rule is that certain forms of harm to soldiers are unnecessary or superfluous. This notion goes back to the 1868 St. Petersburg declaration; a document often described as the cornerstone of the laws of war. From this document evolved the notion that permissible means of injuring the enemy are not unlimited. Now, the 1977 Additional Geneva Protocol I states, in part:

2. "It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering."

The second rule prohibits the use of indiscriminate weapons. Again, Protocol I prohibits "indiscriminate attacks," including 'those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective" and "those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol" and, consequently, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction."

Types of Antipersonnel mines

Broadly speaking AP mines fall into two main categories, blast mines and fragment mines. Blast injuries are caused by the explosion and the expansion of heated gases with a rapid transfer of energy to body tissues. Fragmentation mines deliver small pieces of penetrating metal or even metallic spheres, i.e., shrapnel.

Blast mines are usually buried or laid on the surface of the ground and are triggered by foot pressure. The blast can kill if the explosive charge is large enough; otherwise it blows off the foot or leg of the person who steps on the mine, causing a traumatic amputation with varying degrees of injury to the other leg, genitals, buttocks, and even the opposite arm.

Fragmentation mines are placed immediately above the ground or spring up into the air before exploding and are usually set off by a trip-wire. Shrapnel is either projected outward in a circle or, in a directional mine, spewed over a defined arc. These mines are almost always lethal to those who set them off. The shrapnel can tear a body to shreds at a distance of up to 50 or even 100 meters.

Mine wounds are dirty and contaminated. Fragments from the mine casing or its components and secondary fragments of surrounding dirt or gravel, pieces of footwear, or even the victim's own bones are also driven into surrounding body tissues causing further contamination and injury.

New Mine Technologies

Landmine technology is also changing. They have come a long way from the relatively large plate-shaped devices that were buried by hand. Today, many mines are so-called plastic mines, making detection extraordinarily difficult. These mines have such a small metal content that it is very, very difficult to detect them with any type of mine-detecting technology. They are also becoming increasingly difficult to disarm. They have now been fitted with anti-handling devices which can detect even a five degree tilt in the mine. If you tilt it that much, it'll blow up in your face.

Production and export of AP mines

There are at least 350 types of anti-personnel mines around the world.

At least 56 nations have produced landmines. About 36 countries are or have been exporters. In recent years, China, Italy, and the former Soviet Union have been the world's biggest exporters of landmines.

It is estimated that five to ten million landmines are produced annually. It is difficult to track where a landmine is manufactured. Some are the product of multiple manufacturers, often in different countries. The most destructive, such as the US Claymore mine, are regularly copied and produced by other nations.

Consequences of mine warfare

The use of mines in wide regions of rural countryside, far from cities and means of communications, means that large numbers of victims are alone and isolated when they are injured. If they are accompanied by others, the persons with the victim must take care while hurriedly rushing to the rescue, for they too will be entering the minefield and risk being killed and injured. The number of people that die in this fashion every day will never be known.

Even if help arrives difficulties continue. Transportation in developing countries is often difficult, even in peacetime. Death through hemorrhaging and infection often awaits victims as they are being evacuated to hospitals

The horrific nature of landmine injuries places huge burdens on medical staff and facilities. The surgical work is demanding and time-consuming. Many doctors are ill-prepared or simply untrained from their civilian practice to deal with mine wounds. Victims require more operations, typically as many as six to eight operations. Their average hospital stay is longer. They have a greater need for blood transfusions and the amount of blood needed per transfusion is far greater; over six times as much in the case of landmine amputees. Providing safe blood, free of infectious agents, in sufficient quantities is often not possible.

Rehabilitation of Victims

Successful surgery does not begin to deal with the problems of mine victims' rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The long-term effects in terms of cost, loss of income, and socio-economic dependency are dehabilitating both to the individual and society as a whole. Rehabilitation begins with physiotherapy and provision of an artificial limb. Each prosthesis must be individually fitted and replaced every 3 to 5 years and every 6-12 months for a growing child. Prostheses are expensive and the cost of those used in developed countries is beyond the reach of most victims. A child injured at the age of 10 years, with a life expectancy of another 40 to 50 years, will need 25 appliances during his or her lifetime. At approximately $125 per limb this totals more than $3,000. In most countries where average per capita income is $15 to $20 per month it is easy to understand why most people can only afford crutches.

Besides physical trauma, mine victims also bear the psychological trauma of a radical change in self-image, especially for young adults. Their reduced capabilities can seem unbearable to the individual involved. Unemployment, divorce, poor marriage prospects, and social ostracism are just some of the insults which follow the original injury.

Social and Economic Costs

The human costs of mines already in the ground are enormous. Thousands of lives are lost to explosions. Entire regions are denied basic services because repairs to infrastructure are impeded. Humanitarian aid shipments are disrupted, and societies are thrown into chaos.

Mines isolate power lines, bridges, water plants, and road and rail networks. When roads are impassable, goods and services cannot be easily transported. Workers cannot move from one part of the country to the other and economic development is further impeded. When product availability dwindles, prices skyrocket. Businesses then raise their prices and workers demand wage increases. Even in a healthy economy, mines can artificially limit supplies of critical products, producing an inflationary spiral that is politically destabilizing

Landmines are a continuing drag on the world economy. Mines which can cost as little as $3 on the open market can cost up to $1,000 each to clear. In Afghanistan it is estimated that $5,000 is required for treatment and rehabilitation for every survivor. The fragile economies of many mine-plagued countries cannot support the cost of either mine clearance or victim rehabilitation.

The cost in foregone economic development is matched by the cost of defusing the danger. The UN estimates that the average cost for removing a landmine can range up to $1000. The average yearly per capita income in Cambodia is about $280. To completely de-mine Cambodia would require every one of Cambodia's 10 million people to devote every single penny earned to demining for the next 3.5 years. While this is clearly impossible, it highlights the fact that landmines cripple economic development long after the fighting stops.

Caring for the victims of antipersonnel mines challenges every part of a public health care system at every stage of its development, and the problem is most severe in countries least able to bear the burden...

U.S. Landmine Policy

Since 1992, the United States has observed an export moratorium on APL that came about as a result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). In 1994, in his United Nations General Assembly address, President Clinton called for the eventual elimination of APL. Since then, the UN General Assembly has adopted annually a resolution supporting this goal.

The setback in Washington occurred on May 16, 1995 when the Clinton Administration released its "new" landmine policy. In a White House briefing the Administration used some of its highest ranking officials, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defense William Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This policy was stimulated, in part, by a previous high level review done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another impetus was the publication of a letter to the President in the April 3 New York Times signed by 15 high-ranking, retired U.S. military officers urging support for a permanent and total international ban on the production, stockpiling, sale and use of antipersonnel land mines. They found such a ban "militarily responsible" and noted that "antipersonnel landmines are not essential." The signers includes such notables as Gen. David Jones, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of Operation Desert Storm.

However, despite the positive opportunity generated by that letter the Administration's "new" policy was essentially a continuation of the status quo. The President ordered the Pentagon to stop using dumb mines by 1999 but allowed two important exceptions; allowing the continued use of dumb mines along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and troop training. The US. reserves the right to use "smart" mines, subject to the revised CCW restrictions. The only "dumb" mines which will have to be removed are those around the US. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The policy does allow the Pentagon to destroy five million dumb mines but companies stopped making such mines years ago and existing stocks were already scheduled to be destroyed.

Furthermore, the "new" policy conflicts with a bill President Clinton signed into law on February 12, 1995, which calls for a 1-year moratorium on antipersonnel landmine use, starting in 1999. The policy, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy (DVT) who sponsored the legislation, would violate that law. But the Administration defended its decision on the grounds of military necessity. However, some military officials are not convinced of the need for mines. In a background briefing held just two hours before the Administration made its announcement, a senior defense official, speaking of Sen. Leahy's legislation said "we can live with that 1-year moratorium."

The President's decision to take no meaningful steps stands in stark contrast to the recent action of other nations. Forty-one nations, from Afghanistan to Uruguay, have now stated their support for an immediate and comprehensive ban on antipersonnel mines. Twenty-four nations have renounced use of AP mines. Eleven nations are now destroying part or all of their stocks of antipersonnel landmines. Twenty-one nations have prohibited production of antipersonnel mines. In January, Canada suspended all production and use of antipersonnel mines, effective immediately. In April, Germany renounced all production and use of antipersonnel mines, effective immediately. On May 3, the last day of the recent UN review conference, France, Portugal, Malta, Angola, and South Africa called for an immediate ban.

In announcing his policy President Clinton is failing to fulfill his September 1994 pledge to eliminate antipersonnel landmines. He is yielding to the wishes of his most hawkish military advisers, while ignoring the protestations of many in the State Department, Agency for International Development, and other branches of government who are most familiar with the humanitarian and socio-economic disaster caused by mines.

A stated goal without a stated deadline is no goal at all. President Clinton's declaration for the elimination of antipersonnel landmines is empty rhetoric until a definitive deadline is added to that goal.

The Clinton Administration promises the US will work for the elimination of long-lived landmines and will promote the use of short-lived landmines. Short- or long-lived, all landmines are indiscriminate and especially injurious weapons of terror. Long-lived mines inflict lifetimes of suffering on innocent people for years after the conflicts end. Continued promotion and production of any antipersonnel mines legitimize their continued use. Continued use of short-lived mines will complicate verification of a comprehensive ban. Survivors of war will still be prevented from rebuilding their lives and communities.

A landmine by any other name is still a landmine. To use landmines is immoral and should be made illegal. Present policies and actions of the U.S. government fail the humanitarian cause of protecting civilians from the scourge of landmines.

Landmine watch