Over the last 10 years, surgical teams of the International Committee of the Red Cross have treated more than 200,000 victims of antipersonnel mines--mostly women, children and other noncombatants--and fitted 80,000 of them with artificial limbs. How many other victims of mines died can only be guessed. What is certain is that tens of thousands of new casualties wait to be claimed by the more than 100 million mines scattered over the world's former and current battlefields. These so-called antipersonnel mines are small and easily hidden and designed to maim. In Bosnia-Herzegovina alone, an estimated 1.5 million have been deployed since 1991. With an expected 20,000 new victims a year to treat worldwide, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations will not be idle.
Clearing efforts, dangerous and expensive, disarm about 100,000 mines a year. Even if no new mines were ever used in warfare, the threat from those existing--most of them largely forgotten in unmapped fields--would remain for generations.
A U.N. conference in Vienna is now trying to find broad agreement on how to reduce the indiscriminate slaughter and maiming. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, noting that 1,600 people would be killed or wounded by mines over the course of the conference, which ends Friday, wants to ban all land mines. A number of smaller countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, echo that call, and France has announced that it will stop producing and exporting mines. But China, a major exporter, continues to argue that mines are "effective defensive weapons . . . to resist foreign aggression." In fact, the most dangerous places to civilians today are countries that have endured long civil wars, like Cambodia, Mozambique and the former Yugoslavia, or where mines were heavily used not by a country's defenders but by an aggressor, for example the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The United States favors an eventual ban on all land mines but, recognizing realities, it is pushing only for an agreement to further limit the use of mines and to equip those that are deployed with self-destruct mechanisms, so that they don't indefinitely remain a threat to civilian life and limb. The technical means exist to have a mine deactivate itself within, say, 30 days after it is deployed. Britain and other Western nations back the U.S. position. The challenge, as China's stance shows, will be getting the major land mine producers and exporters to support an effective agreement. It's already too late to save thousands of innocents from the lethal residue of earlier wars. But at least steps can be taken to reduce future casualties. Vienna is the place to make a start.