Towards a landmine free country

Sep 22 (IL) In what could be described as a significant feat to the country's landmine problem, the Sri Lankan Government has acceded to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in New York. The convention will prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons, which maybe deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

Landmines are among the most insidious weapons commonly used in armed conflict, often indiscriminately and they cause immense suffering, especially among civilians. What is more, they continue to claim victims for decades after the fighting has stopped. But for many in Sri Lanka, the real consequences of a landmine are still obscure, except for the victims.

The landmine, also referred to as the invisible 'Goliath', has been a constant threat to civilians living in the North and East and, despite Sri Lanka presently enjoying a ceasefire, the threat of the landmine menace continues. This is also despite both, the Government forces and the LTTE's cooperating with international agencies, currently carrying out de-mining operations in the North-East.

The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) says, an estimated 1.5 million anti personnel mines contaminate the districts in the North and East. Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts are identified as the most affected districts.

However, the number of landmine related incidents have dropped from an initial 15-20 a month (before the Ceasefire Agreement) to 4-7 incidents, since the agreement was signed. According to data, 1042 civilians have been affected by mines and unexploded ordnance, including 153 fatalities. These statistics are post 1995, prior to which no proper records were maintained, with most incidents going unreported. Military casualties number over 3000, including fatalities.

By acceding to the CCW on Tuesday, Sri Lanka also becomes party to the Amended Protocol II on mines, booby traps and other devices, Protocol III on incendiary weapons and Protocol IV on blinding laser weapons. CCW calls for the limited use of anti personnel landmines by the State, the monitoring and marking of minefields and the regulation of the use and transfer of mines. The Protocol also establishes important restrictions and obligations on the use, recording and clearance of weapons, other than anti personnel mines such as anti vehicle mines and time-delayed or manually detonated explosives.

Executive Director, CHA, Jeevan Thiagarajah, stresses that Sri Lanka has taken the first, very positive step towards achieving the target of a landmine free country forever, by acceding to the CCW. He also reiterated the need now for the Government to take the next 'most important' step and sign the Ottawa Convention, which places a total ban on the use of anti personnel mines. The Ottawa convention also prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti personnel mines. He also urged the LTTE to sign the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment, which would prohibit any further use of anti personnel mines by the LTTE.

Mr. Thiagarajah emphasising on the problems the existence of landmines in the North East, noted that, until the landmines are removed completely, it would remain an ever-present obstacle to reconstruction and resettlement in these areas.

Sources also noted that, Sri Lanka is one of the few fortunate countries devoid of de-mining casualties, todate. "In most countries, where de-mining takes place, personnel involved in the process, invariably suffer fatalities, no matter how professional they are. Sri Lanka is a fortunate exception in this instance."

A key characteristic of the anti personnel mine is that it's designed to maim rather than kill. Cheap and easy to make, unit cost just US $ 1, yet, once in the ground, it could cost more than US $1,000 to find and destroy it.

A landmine blast causes blindness, burns, destroyed limbs and shrapnel wounds. Sometimes, victims wounded by the blast, bleed to death for want of prompt medical attention.

Those who survive and receive medical treatment often require amputations, lengthy hospitalisation and extensive rehabilitation