Landmines and cluster munitions

The term landmine refers to anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Anti-personnel mines kill or injure enemy fighters while anti-vehicle mines are intended to destroy or stop vehicles and their passengers from driving on. While landmines are listed as a category of small arms in the 1997 report of a group of experts for Small Arms, it would be clearer if a separate category for them was established as landmines, counter to firearms, can neither aim nor fire at a certain target. A mine is “a munition designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle (...)" (Article 2, para. 2, Mine Ban Treaty). In other words, landmines can be triggered by people, animals or vehicles that touch them, even long after the end of a war.

They are buried just beneath the surface so that they are not detected, are intended to destroy or make immobile enemy objects that come close to the mine or touch it. Live landmines can lie in the ground for decades until a living being or a vehicle comes too close or, by touching a trip wire, by radio or other signals, triggers the detonation.

Landmines are made of plastic, metal or other materials and contain explosives or, at times, fragments. There are various kinds of anti-personnel landmines, such as blast mines that are triggered when the victim directly steps onto them. Often, the victim's foot or leg is blown off, causing an injury that is infected easily and can thus in the majority of cases only be treated by amputating the respective limb. So-called fragmentation mines are designed to project metal fragments that will enter the body of the victim. Bounding fragmentation mines have a small lifting charge that, when activated, launches the main body of the mine out of the ground before it detonates at around chest height. This produces a spray of shrapnel over a larger area and causes deep, often lethal, wounds on the victim's entire body. The bounding mine is the most powerful anti-personnel mine causing the most devastation.

Landmines were originally developed and used as defensive weapons. They were to create barriers for defence, lead enemy troops to 'killing zones' to protect strategic areas, such as borders, posts or important bridges or to prevent the enemy from accessing valuable territory or resources. They were also intended to slow down or limit enemy advances and to undermine the morale by random attacks of its soldiers. The intention to rather maim than kill enemy troops war particularly insidious, as the effort is greater to look after an injured soldier than a dead soldier in battle.

Landmines were used by nearly all armies in the world. The first large-scale use was in World War II. Since then, they were deployed in the Vietnam War, the Korean War and the First Gulf War (1991). In the later civil wars and armed conflicts led by non-state groups, they were increasingly used against civilians. They were intended to stop them from accessing their fields and to limit their freedom of movement.

As mine fields were not consistently marked and charted and because rain and other factors slightly changed their location, neither soldiers or peace corps nor civilians or humanitarians knew in the end which parts of the country were mined so that they were unprotected against the effects. Resistance against landmines started initially within the military itself, which argued that the humanitarian costs of landmines exceeded by far the military benefit. In 1992, humanitarian groups and NGOs initiated a global campaign on the ban, manufacture and spread of these weapons. The highpoint of this campaign was in 1997 with the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty (Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel- Mines and on Their Destruction), which 150 countries had signed at the time of writing.

Cluster Munitions

A cluster bomb is a metal container that holds hundreds of small explosive charges (bomblets) They often look like bright drinks cans or tennis balls. Cluster bombs are dropped from an aircraft or fired from rocket launchers from the ground. When they have opened in the air, they release their small charges that spread over an area of multiple football pitches (several hundred hectares) and explode upon impact on the ground with the intention to kill or injure as many people as possible. Their shrapnel pierces human or animal bodies and penetrate armoured vehicles. All persons who are in the area of attack are likely to be killed or badly wounded.

Cluster bombs are offensive, lethal weapons. What is particularly dangerous is that a large number of these bomblets do not explode but remain stuck in the ground threatening the population for decades to come. They can penetrate the ground by up to 50 cm. Highly unpredictable and sensitive, they then explode at the smallest movement or touch. The effect of those unexploded bomblets is similar to that of classical landmines, at the same high humanitarian cost. The blast from these weapons causes physical injuries like blindness, burns, maimed limbs and shrapnel wounds. Victims may die from the blast, while those who survive often need to have a limb amputated, resulting in long stays in hospital and require extensive and long-term rehabilitation.

Cluster bombs were first used in World War II by the German and Russian armies and have since been used by many others. The United States and its allies used most cluster bombs during the 1991 Gulf War. Reports say that they dropped 61,000 cluster bombs with 20 million bomblets within one month. As the devices are designed to explode on hard ground, many did not and got buried in the soft sand of the desert or in coastal waters.

Children are the most likely victims of such duds as they resemble bright drinks cans or tennis balls. They often mistake them for toys or small aid packages dropped from aeroplanes. Farmers and villagers are also often injured when they come across cluster bombs in their fields.

In the Lebanon, even one year after the ceasefire, more than 200 civilians were killed by cluster bombs that Israel had dropped there in 2006. This triggered action by governments who, in 2008, developed a legally binding international instrument that was to follow the success of the Mine Ban Treaty. Only in August 2010 did the international Convention on Cluster Munitions enter into force; since then, 101 countries (May 2017) have ratified it.

Sources and further information:

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