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Landmines help save lives and are our best hope for peace

By Alexander Deane - posted Friday, 6 August 2004

The 1997 Ottawa Convention banned the use and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines.  One hundred and thirty-five nations have signed the convention, including Australia. Australia has also ratified it, and supported the convention's aims as they became official United Nations policy with General Assembly Resolution 53/77. The convention requires those that do so to abandon the use of landmines within ten years. The Convention also requires the destruction of the signatory's stockpile of landmines: Australia's was destroyed in 1999.

To restrict Australian policy in this way was misguided and we should withdraw from the convention as soon as possible - certainly before our commitment becomes binding.

Landmines are an excellent way of defending a wide area for very little money. They permit the defence of an area without requiring an accompanying large personnel attendance.


This is a legitimate aim both in warfare, when military personnel are spread too thinly to protect all civilians, and in poor countries during peacetime, who would rather invest in their infrastructure than funding the military capacity that would otherwise be required to defend the same ground.

When armies still depend on conventional weapons and movement - moving tanks and large infantry groups - and borders are weak, the defensive tactic of landmines is highly appropriate: it is cheap, affordable, and maintains borders. Their existence can slow or stop an advance, delaying or even halting conflict; they can deter invasion in the first place. By guarding wide areas from swift armed advance on civilians, they can prevent genocide.

For this reason, the implications of removing landmines from the internationally available pool of armaments ought to be considered with particular attention to Africa, the theatre most likely to see such action taking place. Banning landmines disproportionately punishes small, underdeveloped countries unable to develop the higher-technology military capacity that has rendered them less useful to richer nations; that is to say, banning landmines harms precisely the kind of nation most likely to need them for defensive purposes.

The ban has an asymmetric effect: it only stops nations that obey the law from using landmines. Most nations contemplating invasion will ignore it, deploying them aggressively to defend captured territory. On the other hand, many nations that would use landmines defensively for themselves, or for multinational defence of another vulnerable nation or people, will observe the ban and thus weaken themselves and those they guard. The landmine should in fact be a primary tool of the United Nations efforts to protect those in its care.

Instead, the ban fails to distinguish between different kinds of antipersonnel mines. The American arsenal includes mines that can deactivate themselves and can self-destruct. Furthermore, the ban fails to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible users. Under American deployment, they are used responsibly, being set and removed in a methodical manner. These mines, used in peacekeeping initiatives, protect US troops and present little danger to civilians. Stopping their use would endanger the lives of peacekeepers and make the US less likely to enter into such operations - part of the reason the US refused to sign the Ottawa treaty in 1997, and has declined to do so since. America only manufactures smart mines, and has since 1976 tested 32,000 mines with a successful self-destruction rate of 99.996 per cent.

It is such anti-personnel mines - reliable, controllable, capable of being used responsibly - that would be used in the kind of peacekeeping operations Australia may participate in were the option to be open. Such a facility is to be desired.


The use of landmines in war time or a tense environment is a totally separate issue to cleaning them up in peace time; efforts to blur the two together by pro-ban commentators should be resisted. The former can be fixed without banning the latter.

We should realise that the consequence of keeping land mines legal is an obligation on the part of those that use them to fund clean-up efforts much more substantially. This obligation should be rigorously enforced, and the attention of humanitarian organisations in international civil society would undoubtedly urge its use once it is created.

Perhaps Australian withdrawal from the convention would encourage others to take up landmines once again - others who would use such weapons less responsibly, with devastating consequences.

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About the Author

Alexander Deane is a Barrister. He read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge and took a Masters degree in International Relations as a Rotary Scholar at Griffith University. He is a World Universities Debating Champion and is the author of The Great Abdication: Why Britain’s Decline is the Fault of the Middle Class, published by Imprint Academic. A former chief of staff to David Cameron MP in the UK, he also works for the Liberal Party in Australia.

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