Land mines, used in zones of conflict to prevent access, are containers filled with explosives. Usually camouflaged or hidden, the devices maim and even kill when detonated by their unsuspecting victims. Land mines are small, inexpensive and easy to deploy. The earliest versions were developed during World War I for use against battle tanks. Between 1918 and 1939, the development and use of anti-personnel mines became a priority among military strategists. These mines were targeted at soldiers and linked to specific military objectives. By the 1960s and 1970s, during the Cold War, the use of land mines by government forces and guerrilla armies was widespread and random dissemination of mines was common. A field full of $5 mines can immobilize enemy troops and strike terror into the hearts of civilians.
Anti-personnel mines are typically less than 10 cm in diameter and are designed to kill or maim the person who triggers the mine by stepping on it. Anti-tank mines, in contrast, explode only when compressed by something weighing hundreds of kilograms and thus represent less of a danger to individuals.
Millions of anti-personnel mines have been left behind in the battle zones of more than 60 countries. Precise estimates on the numbers of mines are difficult because most of the forces that laid mines kept poor records. Mines made of plastic are difficult to detect and the process of removing them by hand is extremely slow and labour intensive. In mine-affected areas, civilians have been unable to work fields where mines have been sown or have found their paths to drinking water supplies or firewood cut off.
The movement to do something about these weapons began in the United States among veterans of the Vietnam War. By 1992 a coalition of more than 650 non-governmental organizations from more than 3 dozen nations joined under the umbrella group International Campaign to Ban Landmines to call for the elimination of anti-personnel mines. These groups exploited the emerging technology of electronic mail to stay in touch with each other and to lobby governments.
Early efforts towards the eradication of land mines concentrated on the United Nations DISARMAMENT system but anti-mines activists soon became disenchanted with what they viewed as a bureaucratic and cumbersome process. Non-governmental organizations began raising international awareness about the impact of anti-personnel mines in 1992. Prime Minister Jean CHRÉTIEN called for a ban on land mines at the G-7 summit in Naples in 1994. In January 1996, Canada began working on a ban with a global coalition of like-minded states, international organizations, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. In May 1996, 51 countries met to amend the 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The enhanced restrictions on mines, however, did not satisfy all of them. A small group of countries meeting in Geneva decided that a total ban was necessary. The Canadian government, concerned that a commitment to outlaw mines would be watered down, offered to host an international conference in Ottawa in December 1996.
From this point on, the movement to ban land mines moved with astonishing speed. Fifty nations met in Ottawa to explore the idea of a global ban although many had reservations, some considering that land mines were an effective part of their military arsenal. Although prominent military figures have disputed the validity of this argument, the United States has persistently refused to consider participation in the land mines ban for this reason. Canada's foreign affairs minister, Lloyd AXWORTHY, surprised delegates at this gathering when he sidestepped traditional diplomacy and announced that Canada would convene another meeting in December 1997 to conclude a pact to forbid the use, production or export of anti-personnel mines.
In October 1997 the co-ordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Jody Williams of the US, received the Nobel Peace Prize for spearheading the 6-year drive. A month later, Canada began the task of destroying its stockpile of mines. On 3 December 1997, officials from 122 countries gathered in Ottawa to sign a treaty aimed at ridding the world of anti-personnel mines. The meetings culminated in the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty, which came into force on March 1, 1999. The treaty called for member states to destroy its stockpiled mines within four years. Delegates were asked to accept the treaty's terms without further negotiation. The Ottawa Treaty was the first disarmament instrument in history to ban a widely used weapon of war. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien pledged $100 million over 5 years to finance mine-clearance projects.
By the first anniversary of the signing of the treaty, 133 countries had signed and pledged to destroy their stockpiles. The countries with the biggest armies and most mines - China, the US, Russia and Israel - resisted signing. Efforts to clear fields of mines did not quicken noticeably in the wake of the treaty, however, even as countries poured money into developing new clearance technologies. Anti-mines activists have complained that much of the technology is too expensive or inappropriate for use in developing countries. They say that the money would be better spent hiring demobilized soldiers to clear former war zones through conventional methods. But mines are being removed and the threat of injury to civilians is lessening in some parts of the world.
Land mines are far from a thing of the past. Beginning in December 2001, India and Pakistan conducted the largest mine-laying operations in many years, locating antipersonnel mines along their 2800-km common border. In Myanmar, government and rebel troops continue to use mines extensively and mine use by rebels has increased in Nepal, where there are also indications of government use. India, Pakistan and the Philippines continued to use mines in 2002. In 2001-02 warring factions in Afghanistan used antipersonnel mines, despite extensive mine-clearing operations in the late 1990s and the country's joining the Mine Ban Treaty on September 11, 2002.
Among the countries still using or stockpiling anti-personnel land mines are China, Pakistan, India, South Korea, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. Among those countries that have resisted joining the Mine Ban Treaty are highly mine-affected countries such as Laos, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, East Timor, FS Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Tuvala. Globally, 146 countries have joined the treaty, 131 of which have ratified.