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Diplomatic Minefields

Why are India, the US, China and a host of others not agreeing to sign a treaty banning landmines?

Diplomatic Minefields
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

IN the 52 years since World War II, they have caused more death and injury than the combined toll of all nuclear and chemical weapons. Each month, every month, these "dumb" landmines kill, maim or disfigure more than 2,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, worldwide. They're called "dumb" weapons because they do not discriminate between friend and foe, between young and old, between man, woman and child. There is one land-mine for every 16 children in the world, or one for every 48 inhabitants of the planet, says the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which is spearheading the campaign to ban landmines, particularly anti-personnel mines (APLs). For every mine cleared, 20 more are laid. All just waiting, silently, for their next unsuspecting victim.

But when the treaty to ban APLs (officially called the "Convention on the Prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and on their destruction"), opens for signatures in Ottawa on December 3, India will not be among the signatories. Other countries that will abstain include China, which produces mines for as little as $1.50 a piece; the US, which wants to retain minefields in South Korea, fearing that the North would overrun Seoul in hours otherwise; Pakistan, which won't sign unless India does; and Afghanistan, where the Taliban, beset with more pressing problems, has done little more than issue a statement describing mines as "un-Islamic". Russia and the UK, who were not too keen, are now reconsidering their decision, and are likely to sign.

All these countries, including India, agree in principle that mines cause immense human damage, but cite security and strategic reasons for not signing a treaty which calls for an outright ban. Like China, India wants a phased approach, where countries first agree to stop the export of mines. Then, there should be a pact which prevents non-military users, like terrorists and radical groups, from getting these mines. Only then does a treaty calling for a total ban make sense.

At the moment, APLs are the most effective way of protecting your defences against an enemy advance. "No military person will ever accept that landmines are an unnecessary part of his inventory," says Lt Gen. (retd) Gurbir Mansingh, a combat engineer who took part in both mining and demining operations on the Pakistan border in the 1965 war, and later played an active role in policy and operation.

While accepting that the human damage caused by mines is awesome, he feels it is a non-issue in the subcontinent—because India and Pakistan have conducted mine warfare in an exceptionally professional manner, something that the ICRC too admits.

FOR instance, in the '47-48 war in Jammu and Kashmir, a very small number of mines were laid, mainly to protect vital installations. Then, in Punjab in 1965, the main minefields were laid on the plains of both sides. Since this was agriculturally precious land, both sides took special care to ensure that the minefields were properly mapped, and were demined immediately after the war. They are even said to have exchanged maps to facilitate removal of the mines. And during the 1971 war, very few mines were laid because the main battlefront was soft, riverine country.

Debunking the assumption that mines are laid along the entire battlefront or line of control, Lt Gen. Mansingh clarifies that they are basically used to protect defence installations along the border from infantry attacks. They are also used to protect antitank mines, which by their very nature are far more easier to detect and defuse.

The situation was different during the war with China in 1962, when some mines were hastily laid in the mountainous border. These were difficult to map, and worse still, usually moved with the snow. Luckily, APLs become ineffective in snow, and the regions in which they were planted were anyway remote and sparsely populated. On the western border, mines are still laid on certain areas of the LoC, particularly in Kashmir, but the fields are fenced, warning signs in local languages are put up, and civilians are denied access to these areas.

In a report to the ICRC last year, Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee, co-director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said the India-Pakistan wars were remarkable for the restraint and responsibility shown by both sides. "The limited nature of the wars and their short duration ensured that the mine problem remained relatively small, and both parties had the resources to clear the mines almost immediately after each confrontation."

 But that does not prevent the stray civilian casualty. A Kashmir Times report quotes Col G.K Reddy, an officer in the border area of Kupwara, as saying that at least 25 civilians had lost their limbs in landmine explosions recently. "There are 51 minefields near the LoC in my area, and in each field, at least a 100 mines are buried. These mines were laid during the 1948, 1965, 1971 wars and after 1990 to protect our areas from the enemy," he said. He admitted there were casualties despite the danger signals near the minefields being put up in local languages, possibly because many residents are unlettered. He would not venture an estimate as to how may mines were laid along the entire LoC. Lt Gen. Mansingh, however, admits there are active mine-fields along the border with Kashmir, particularly near vital installations.

 The arguments about APLs being a cheap deterrent and that mines do not cause civilian casualties when professional armies are involved fail to impress Louise Doswald Beck, a senior ICRC official. The arguments may sound logical, but are actually unrealistic, she says. Armies at war are under pressure, and may not have time to mark the minefields properly. Then, there's the weather. In hilly terrain, no matter how well secured they are, mines tend to shift, rendering maps irrelevant. Contending that mines have marginal defensive utility, she cites the Gulf War, where the Americans cut paths through the massive Iraqi minefields simply by plowing over them in an armoured bulldozer.

But Lt Gen. Mansingh points out that this wouldn't apply to mountainous regions like Kashmir. Besides, underdeveloped countries simply do not have access to the kind of sophisticated demining equipment and methods used by Americans. He also feels that India, with its vast professional expertise in mine-laying and clearing, should offer to help demining operations in the worst-affected areas, like Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Angola. This would be a positive sign that India is concerned.

Describing the Ottawa accord as "unrealistic," Prof Bharat Karnad, an expert on national security at the Centre for Policy Research, feels that "the Indian government is in the habit of blindly signing any treaty, and then backtracking when the full implications seep in. But in this case, the government has, correctly, listened to the Army." He points out that India has a long, porous and disputed border with Pakistan as well as with China, and landmines are a safe and effective way to protect them.

 Savita Varde-Naqvi, ICRC's information officer, South Asia, has another take. "If India could take a moralistic stand on apartheid, why can't it do so in the case of mines? Even if New Delhi just signs the convention, but then takes time to ratify it, the correct signals would be sent to others in the region. After all, in this world of diplomatic minefields, signals make all the difference."

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