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UNICEF calls for an international law banning land-mines

Citing the "enormous pain and suffering" land-mines have inflicted on hundreds of thousands of children over the last several decades, UNICEF is calling for an international law banning the production, use, stockpiling, sale and export of anti-personnel mines. In its report, The State of the World's Children 1996, UNICEF joins a growing number of organizations proposing such a measure. UNICEF also announces in the report that it will not deal with the dozens of companies around the world that now manufacture or sell the deadly devices.

"Of all the weapons that have accumulated over years of war, few are more persistent and more lethal to children," the report says. In 64 countries, where an estimated 110 million land-mines are lodged in the ground, children pick up or step on the devices while herding animals, working in the fields or just playing. Since many of the explosives look like toys, tops, pineapples or butterflies, children are drawn to them. In some areas, children scavenge mines for scrap metal.

Limbless and blind children around the world bear witness to the land-mines' path of destruction. Since 1975, the devices have killed or maimed more than 1 million people. They continue to kill 800 victims each month and disable more than 1,000 others. Women and children in Angola account for most of the country's 20,000 amputees. In El Salvador, about 75 per cent of those injured or killed were children. Many of today's land-mines, which can remain active for decades, were planted before their youngest victims were born.

Because their bodies are more vulnerable, children suffer greater injury and are more likely to be killed by mines than adults. And the number of child victims is likely to grow in countries that can least afford treatment for them. In El Salvador, for example, fewer than 20 per cent of child victims receive artificial limbs or any kind of remedial therapy. The rest have to fend for themselves, often begging or stealing to survive.

A land-mine is a perfect soldier: "Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses," the UNICEF report quotes one Khmer Rouge general as saying. And, the general might have added, the mechanical soldier never eats, falls ill or disobeys. Moreover, it gives a bigger bang for the dollar: a mine can cost as little as US$3.

Precisely because they are cheap and plentiful, land-mines have littered the landscape of developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 23 million mines await triggering in Egypt alone, according to a United Nations report. Angola holds as many as 15 million mines -- at least one for every inhabitant.

These devices, a weapon of choice everywhere, are used by most combatants on the globe. During the Persian Gulf war, for example, the United States and its allies laid about 1 million mines along the Iraq-Kuwait border and around the Iraqi city of Basra. In the fighting in the Balkans, at least 3 million mines have been laid.

When deployed in territories with high civilian populations, land-mines rip apart the fabric of life, disrupt food production and distribution, burden health facilities, obstruct relief efforts and the resettlement of refugees and despoil the environment. The devastation they unleash can last for decades.

Land-mines can be cleared, but only by a laborious, expensive process. Trained workers have to crawl their way along, probing the soil inch by inch. One person can cover only 20 to 50 square metres a day. Each mine can cost up to US$1,000 to clear.

UNICEF, which assists in mine awareness programmes for children and their families, points out that the world is losing the battle to protect children against land-mines. While about 100,000 mines were cleared in 1993, 2 million more replaced them, according to UN sources. An additional 100 million land-mines are believed to be stockpiled.

Another obstacle to eradication of mines is the fact that the weapons and their scattering devices are profitable for the companies that manufacture and sell them. UNICEF wants to put pressure on such companies to stop the harmful business and has joined the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in supporting a boycott of these companies, many of them with household-name recognition.

"I see little difference between those who use them and those who produce them," says Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Whatever the present legality of manufacturing such weapons, the toll they take on innocent civilians amounts to a crime against humankind."

In its report, UNICEF says a comprehensive international law banning production, use, stockpiling, sale and export of land-mines is "the only way to stop the endless suffering of children and other civilians."

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