Cover Image
close this bookBanning Anti-Personnel Mines - The Ottawa Treaty Explained (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1998, 24 p.)
close this folder1. The landmine problem and progress towards a ban treaty
View the document1.1 The need for a ban treaty
View the document1.2 The existing law
View the document1.3 The Ottawa process

1.1 The need for a ban treaty

Landmines are powerful and unforgiving devices. Unlike other weapons of war, most of which must be aimed and fired, anti-personnel landmines are “victim” actuated. That is, they are designed to be detonated by a person stepping on or handling the device, or by disturbing a tripwire attached to it.2 Once emplaced, anti-personnel mines are indiscriminate in their effects and, unless removed or detonated, long lasting. Even today, landmines laid during the Second World War continue to be discovered and, on occasion, to kill or wound, more than 50 years after the end of the conflict. Landmines cannot “distinguish” between the soldier and the civilian. They kill or maim a child playing football just as readily as a soldier on patrol. Especially in post-conflict societies, it is most often the civilian going about his or her daily activities that is the unfortunate victim.

2 Anti-vehicle mines, on the other hand, are designed to be detonated by the weight of a vehicle. When left on roadways that are not used solely by military personnel, they also take their toll on civilian lives and injuries. Anti-vehicle mines are discussed further below.

While all war wounds are horrific, the injuries inflicted by anti-personnel mines are particularly severe. These weapons are designed to kill, or, more often, to disable permanently their victims. They are specifically constructed to shatter limbs and lives beyond repair. The detonation of a buried anti-personnel “blast” mine rips off one or both legs of the victim and drives soil, grass, gravel, metal, the plastic fragments of the mine casing, pieces of the shoe, and shattered bone up into the muscles and lower parts of the body. Thus, in addition to the traumatic amputation of the limb, there is a serious threat of secondary infection. As wounds such as these are not often seen by civilian doctors, treating a mine-injured patient can be a challenge to the most competent surgeon.

If they survive a landmine blast, the victims typically require multiple operations and prolonged rehabilitative treatment. Unfortunately, most mine accidents occur in countries with limited medical and rehabilitative resources. Access to proper treatment and care is thus difficult or impossible. Moreover, transportation to a medical facility immediately following an accident is often arduous. In some countries it may take victims between six and 24 hours to get to a hospital capable of treating them. Many die before reaching any medical facility.

Following the provision of medical care, most mine victims will require extensive rehabilitative treatment. Not only must amputees be fitted with artificial limbs to ensure mobility, but their loss of dignity and their psychological distress must also be addressed. Few survivors have access to such long-term care and assistance programmes. Even if rehabilitated, many victims are disabled, cannot work or provide for their families, and are likely to suffer intense anxiety, with little hope of improving their situation.

In addition to the devastating impact on individual lives, mines also have severe social and economic consequences, particularly for a country attempting to rebuild after the end of an armed conflict. The presence of mines can leave large portions of the national territory unusable. Farmland, grazing pastures and other food-producing areas may be rendered inaccessible and, as a result, the ability of a community to feed itself is impaired. Mined roads and railways make the movement of persons and goods, including the delivery of humanitarian aid, extremely difficult. Mine clearance, although essential, is a slow, dangerous and expensive process.

Although international humanitarian law and traditional military doctrine have set clear requirements for the “responsible” use of anti-personnel mines, too often these rules have not been implemented. Research conducted on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by military experts has shown that in 26 conflicts since the beginning of the Second World War, anti-personnel mines have only rarely been deployed in accordance with the existing legal and military requirements. Even well-trained professional armies have found it extremely difficult to use mines correctly in combat situations. Furthermore, mines have increasingly been used as part of a brutal and systematic war against civilians, especially in the bitter internal conflicts that have come to characterize warfare in the late twentieth century.

It is these tragic realities which make the antipersonnel mine a particularly abhorrent weapon and which have led the ICRC and many other organizations and individuals to call for its prohibition and stigmatization. The use of poison gas and exploding bullets has already been stigmatized and condemned by the international community. Both are weapons of war that are considered as violating the most basic principles of humanity however and whenever they are used. Now, with the adoption of the Ottawa treaty, anti-personnel mines will also be considered as a weapon which carries a level of humanitarian costs that far outweighs their limited military value.