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Southern Africa Report Archive

One of southern Africa's most haunting problems, the ubiquitous presence of land-mines in the rural areas, is dealt with in both this article, and in the article by Bruce Cockburn, elsewhere in this issue. Alex Vines testifies, these are bombs - not time bombs so much as timeless bombs - that have been strewn recklessly across the path of development in countries like Angola and Mozambique, a deadly legacy of the region's long agony of war. And they are primed, quite literally, to go off: again . . . and again.

vol 11 no 1

The southern Africa minefield
Alex Vines

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
Page 19



Alex Vines works with Human Rights Watch in London.

For over 30 years landmines have claimed civilian victims in southern Africa. In 1961, in northern Angola, a landmine took its first life. By 1995 all countries in southern Africa have had landmine incidents, with the exception of Lesotho, and every country in the region maintains stock-piles of such weapons.

Indeed, a new report by Human Rights Watch, entitled "Still Killing: Landmines in Southern Africa",** estimates that southern Africa has some twenty million mines in its soil and that these mines have claimed over 250,000 victims since 1961. Angola is the most affected country in the region, with well over eight million mines in its soil (only Afghanistan is more heavily mined). Angola also has one of the highest rates of landmine injuries per capita in the world. Out of a population of about nine million, it has many thousands of amputees, possibly 70,000, the great majority of them injured by landmines. Yet despite international clearance efforts in Angola, landmines have continued to be planted by both UNITA and government forces. But the problem is well known throughout the region. Moreover, by 1995, landmines were also being used in criminal acts in Mozambique, and were available in Namibia and Zambia for exchange of food or second-hand clothing; they can be bought individually on the black-market in South Africa, for example, for as little as an old pair of shoes!

The trade

The Human Rights Watch report documents the way in which anti- personnel landmines came to feature prominently in the colonial and post-colonial wars that have plagued much of southern Africa for the last three decades. During this period many millions of landmines have been imported into southern Africa (62 different types from some 17 countries) while others have been manufactured there (in South Africa, Zimbabwe and, possibly, Namibia.

Thus, South Africa's mines have been found in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe and have been exported further afield: to Cambodia, Rwanda and possibly Somalia. Zimbabwe's mines have been used in Namibia and Mozambique. But the trail can often be complex: stocks of landmines captured by the South African military in its invasions of southern Angola in the 1970s and 1980s were also used to supply insurgent forces in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, for example. In covert aid the U.S. supplied U.S.- manufactured landmines to UNITA rebels up to 1991 while the Malawian military received U.S. manufactured mines as part of a military co-operation agreement. More recently, in 1993-1994, UNITA rebels in Angola have purchased weapons, including landmines, on the open market, in contravention of U.N. sanctions. Or take the stocks of French landmines cleared in Algeria after independence. Some of were merely sold onto the Mozambican government in the 1970s. Yet now, in Mozambique, government and Renamo clearance of mines of varied provenance has again not resulted consistently in their destruction: they have been preserved for re-use or sale!

The mines themselves

Unlike many other weapons, landmines are blind weapons that cannot distinguish between the footfall of a soldier and that of an old women gathering firewood. Casualty rates due to landmines show that they recognize no cease-fire and, long after the cease-fire has stopped, they can maim or kill the children and grandchildren of the soldiers who laid them.

Two characteristics distinguish landmines from other weapons and cause them to be particularly insidious. First, they are delayed- action weapons. They are meant not for immediate effect, but rather are primed, concealed, and lie dormant until triggered. In theory, mines can be directed at legitimate targets. However, because of the time lag between when mines are laid and when they explode, mines, frequently and indiscriminately, strike civilians instead.

The life of landmines is long. A middle-age man who planted a landmine in northern Angola in 1965 recently returned thirty years later. The mine was still operational and could have killed or maimed at any time over the last thirty years. In many cases, too, those responsible for laying the mines have long since died, or moved, making locating them more difficult. The on-going threat created by live landmines can prevent civilians from living in their homes and using their fields, and can seriously threaten the ability of an entire country to re-build long after the war has ended.

A second distinguishing feature of landmine use is the particularly egregious nature of mine injuries. The majority of landmine explosions that do not cause death result in traumatic medical effects: "The result" writes the British Medical Journal, "for the individual is not one but, typically, a series of painful operations, often followed by a life at the margins of a society heavily dependent on manual labor."

Mine clearance

Mine clearance cannot effectively deal with the crisis; it is generally too little, too late. Moreover, when undertaken at all, most efforts are badly funded and poorly coordinated. Only some US$45m has been invested in mine clearance in southern Africa since May 1991, resulting in less than 400,000 mines being cleared, the majority of these from large defensive minefields in southern Angola.

Nor are such clearance efforts without controversy. In Mozambique, U.N. mine clearance efforts became victim to inter- agency competition for control over funds and consequent bureaucratic delays. They were also thrown into disrepute when a US$7.5 humanitarian contract for clearance of priority roads went to a consortium of British weapons manufacturer, Royal Ordnance, Lonrho de Moçambique and Mechem of South Africa, a part of Denel Ltd, the export wing of state arms manufacturer, Armscor. Both Royal Ordnance and Mechem are companies which have produced landmines, or their components in the past, some of which in all likelihood are to be found in Mozambique. Awarding mine manufacturers with clearance contracts, known as "double- dipping," is opposed by Human Rights Watch. (Mechem in mid-1995 received a further multi-million dollar UN contract for clearance of priority roads in Angola.)

Moreover, even if de-mining were given top priority, it would not be a solution. Mines are being laid worldwide far faster than they are being removed. The U.N. estimates that there are 84-100 million mines still uncleared around the world. By the end of the century there could be between 100 and 130 million. Clearance rates are far slower. In 1994 U.N. programmes cleared an estimated 84,000 mines in total, about 34 times slower than the rate of laying them. Moreover while the average mine costs between US$10 and $20, the average direct and indirect costs of removal range from US$300 to $1,000 a mine - a ratio frightening in its implications for a region with roughly 20 million uncleared mines and new ones still being planted, especially in Angola. Even if new technology and economies of scale brought mine removal costs down by a factor of ten, the cost of mine clearance would still be so prohibitive that clearance alone could not readily abate the crisis.

International protocols?

The Landmines Protocol, an international treaty intended to diminish landmine use against civilians, has also proved utterly ineffective in stemming the crisis. This Protocol is part of the 1980 U.N. Inhumane Weapons Convention (and is currently under international review). 50 states have ratified it as it stands but even though southern Africa is one of the most mine-affected regions in the world only South Africa in the region has ratified it.

Moreover, although the original Landmines Protocol does contain provisions to curb certain kinds of use, it has many failings, not least the fact that, generally, its provisions do not apply to internal conflicts in which the vast majority of mines, as has been the case in southern Africa, are used. Moreover, it contain any real enforcement mechanisms, an extremely serious problem given the fact that the Protocol's limited rules are rarely followed: armies both regularly use mines deliberately against non-combatants and fail to take even minimal precautions to safeguard against collateral harm to civilians.

Take, for example, the case of Zimbabwe. That country inherited a lengthy border minefield, which the Rhodesians boasted was the second largest man-made barrier in the world, second only to the Great Wall of China. Over a million anti-personnel mines were laid in this minefield. Although the early minefields were constructed in conventional manner, demarcated on both sides by security fencing on which was prominently displayed warning signs. By 1977 the Rhodesians stopped demarcating the minefield on the hostile side and stopped maintaining them. As a result mine laying became uncontrolled and unrecorded and booby trapping flourished. This was in direct contravention of the Landmines Protocol. Yet these minefields remain lethal today, often claiming new victims. Clearance of the border minefields will be dangerous, costly and time consuming.

To those unfamiliar with the consequences, mines may not initially evoke the nightmarish visions of warfare conducted, for example, with chemical or biological weapons, traditionally thought of as weapons of mass destruction. However, in their inability to distinguish civilian and military targets, the numerous deaths and egregious injuries they cause, and their terrible potential for massive long-term devastation, landmines are not very different. Indeed, in some ways landmines are worse than chemical weapons, which at least rapidly dissipate.

A total ban?

Yet the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of biological and toxin weapons were banned by international treaty in 1972 as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind". Now, mounting evidence of the destruction caused by anti-personnel landmines has led many groups to call for a similar total ban on anti-personnel landmines, such a ban - on the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of such mines - being preferable to the existing, and largely ineffective, restrictions contained in the Landmine Protocol.

The experience of recent decades in southern Africa has been that if combatants have access to landmines, they will use them in abundance, typically with complete disregard for the Protocol. Thus, since 1961, in every war in the region every group has used landmines indiscriminately. A complete ban would be easier to monitor and enforce than intricate regulations on use which will always engender debate as to whether a particular use is permissible or not. Indeed, given the magnitude of the crisis, the only way to affect use is to attach to landmines the same stigma attached to chemical and biological weapons. In short, the stigma must be attached not to particular, debatable uses of the weapon but to the weapon itself.

Still, it is not really possible to create universal revulsion against landmines without a simultaneous ban on production, stockpiling, and transfer. As noted, southern African experience has shown that if combatants have ready access to landmines, they will use them. Only a squeeze on supply can affect use. Not that a ban on production and export will drive all suppliers from the field. But if only a much smaller number of producers is left standing, it will be easier to treat them as international pariahs. Then mines might come to be seen not as the relatively cheap commodity they are today, but as a weapon for which a premium would have to be charged. Of course, we cannot know how far the number of producers and exporters would have to drop in order to cause an increase in the unit cost of landmines, or how much the cost of landmines would have to be raised in order to affect combatant behavior and reduce landmine use. But the combination of a flat ban, international stigmatization of users and suppliers, and the possibility that censure or sanctions against producers does make the proposal for a complete proscription more promising than simply proposing further modest, and likely unenforceable, restrictions on use.

South African leadership

Fortunately, the South African government has taken a leadership role in Africa on the landmines issue. In July 1994 the new majority led government upheld a moratorium on the export of landmines. The government subsequently acceded to the 1980 U.N. Weapons Convention in May 1995, which was ratified by parliament in August. Meanwhile, the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U.), the U.N. and a number of governments, including those of Belgium, Norway and Sweden, have already indicated their support for a total ban on landmines. The Human Rights Watch reports now suggest that southern Africa states (Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa itself) should also follow this example (for other recommendations of the Human Rights Watch report, see box).

This is, in fact, what many of the citizens of these countries also seek. In Mozambique, a petition campaign in 1994 obtained, within a few months, over 100,000 signatures for a ban. But consider also the view of Afonso Lumbala, a 32 year old farmer from Caxito in Angola who has first hand-experience of landmines: he stepped on one in April 1995. "All soldiers lay these mines. They don't care about us, the people. We suffer for them. They never warn us about mines, we find out by losing our limbs. We want them to clear the mine mess and leave us alone. The leaders and their soldiers are responsible for this. So are the people who make these evil weapons."


** Human Rights Watch, Still Killing: Landmines in Southern Africa, to be published this month by Human Rights Watch/Arms Project. For further information contact: Steve Goose, Program Director, Human Rights Watch/Arms Project, 1522 K St., N.W., #910, Washington DC 20005-1202 USA, Tel: (202) 371-6592 Fax: (202) 371-0124, E-mail: hrwatchdc@igc.apc.org; or Alex Vines, Human Rights Watch, 33 Islington High St., London N1 9LH UK, Tel: (171) 713 1995, Fax: (171) 713 1800, E-mail: hrwatchuk@gn.apc.org


Key Recommendations of the Report

Only South Africa has acceded to the convention and declared a commitment not to export or transfer landmines. Given that over the last thirty years in southern Africa anti-personnel landmines have been shown to present a serious and long-term threat to civilians far in excess of any short-term military advantage that may be gained, Human Rights Watch calls on the governments of Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe to:

* support an international ban on landmines, and destroy stockpiles.

* push for Protocol II of the 1980 U.N. Weapons Convention to be amended to prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling or transfer of anti-personnel mines. There should also be mechanisms for verification and penalties for abuse of the terms of the Protocol.

* South Africa, Zimbabwe and possibly Namibia have a domestic capacity to manufacture anti-personnel mines. Human Rights Watch urges these states to guarantee that no further production is taking place and permit regular independent monitoring of their production facilities.

* the Angolan government and opposition UNITA leadership stop their forces planting new mines and assist more enthusiastically national mine clearance initiatives.

Human Rights Watch calls on the U.N. to:

* not continue to reward mine-producing companies with humanitarian clearance contracts. Mechem, a producer of landmines and the subsidiary of South African state arms manufacturing company, Denel Ltd, should be encouraged to privatize and specialize only in mine clearance before it receives any additional contracts. Mechem should allow regular independent inspection of its facilities to verify that it does not continue to produce components for landmine or engage in research for a future production of anti-personnel mines.

* ensure that companies working for them do not sub-contract to organizations or enterprises that might engage in production or active training in landmine warfare.

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