Winning: Another Victory For Gunrunners

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January 14, 2015: On December 24th 2014 a new UN arms control treaty went into effect. Called the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), so far 130 nations have signed on but only 61 have ratified (passed local laws) and agreed to abide by the treaty. The treaty requires ratifying nations to report to the UN details of weapons they have imported and exported. These countries are also required to try and prevent illegal diversion of weapons to arms smuggling operations. Countries ratifying the treaty are also required to order companies within their borders to halt exports when the UN determines the recipient is misbehaving and embargoed from receiving weapons. Similar international agreements (like the 1999 one that outlawed landmines and earlier ones that banned chemical weapons) were evaded and continue to be evaded. There is a lesson in that which the promoters of the ATT apparently did not appreciate.

Take, for example what happened when landmines were outlawed by an international treaty in 1999. Back then most of the nations that rushed to sign up either didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. While 161 nations signed the treaty, the 36 which have not comprise some major military powers like China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel (and the Palestinians), both Koreas, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Most of these nations still see a pressing need for landmines, although many are trying to find replacement weapons. Thus while the United States agreed in 2014 to abide, sort of, with the treaty it did not actually renounce the use of landmines. The U.S. only agreed to only manufacture them for use in Korea, where they protect American and South Korean forces from another attack from the north. Other than that the U.S. will not manufacture or stockpile anti-personnel landmines. While hailed as a victory for backers of the ban, the American decision actually demonstrates again why the ban is more style than substance.

While landmine casualties have declined from about 20,000 a year when the Cold War ended to about 5,000 now, that was largely due to the collapse of many communist governments, which were always the biggest landmine users (to keep people from entering or leaving their countries) and exporters. The fall of communism led to more open borders and a lot of mines were taken out of service. Thus the treaty backers like to take credit for 87 countries destroying 46 million landmines, but most of these mines would have been destroyed anyway because the collapse of so many communist governments made most of those mines eligible for retirement (borders were now open) and destruction (or discreet sale to sometimes unsavory customers).

Despite the anti-landmine efforts, some countries still manufacture and use them. In the last few years Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) planted new mines. In addition, there are three countries still manufacturing landmines (India, Burma and Pakistan). Arms dealers will still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were the major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not so much for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and preventing citizens from leaving these unpleasant dictatorships.

There has been a growing list of outlaw organizations that are ignoring the 1999 treaty. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani, Afghan, and foreign soldiers, as well as Afghan civilians who refuse to support Islamic terrorism. Rebels and gangsters have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down the movements of the security forces. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines are still causing over 5,000 casualties a year worldwide. About 20 percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). This is because in many countries rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, despite the fact that so many have been destroyed in the name of the 1999 treaty. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 treaty was supposed to have eliminated the threat of landmines. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, especially Russia and China, refused to sign. Chinese landmines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often sold before they become worthless. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory built ones from China, can be built for less than $3 each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the most effective way to get the mine clearing done is by training local volunteers to be part of the part-time mine clearing teams. The government must provide training, pay (which should be good by local standards), and health and life insurance. When a new bunch of mines are found (usually by an animal coming across them), the team gets to work.

Landmines continue to be a nasty problem for many nations. This is especially true of countries in out-of-the-way places that rarely generate many headlines for any reason. A typical case is Tajikistan. One of the northern neighbors of Afghanistan, Tajikistan long had mines on its borders because of communist policies towards free movement (as little as possible). After becoming independent of Russia in the early 1990s, Tajikistan went through several years of civil war in which both sides planted thousands of Cold War surplus landmines. Russia helped settle that internal conflict and supplied peacekeepers, who also manned the Afghan border to try and keep the Afghan heroin and hashish out. This involved more new minefields along the Afghan border. There were also some mines planted on the new international borders (with other former parts of the Soviet Union).

While Tajikistan got some foreign aid to help with clearing all those mines, less than half of the known minefields have been cleared so far. Fortunately the mines tend to be planted in thinly populated areas, so only a few hundred thousand people live near enough to the mined areas to be in any danger. Thus, since 1991, 20-30 people a year have been killed by the mines, with another 30-40 wounded. Civilians are the most frequent victims of landmines.

India and Pakistan continue to maintain extensive mine fields along their 900 kilometer border. Both countries still manufacture mines. Same deal with the two Koreas.

Thus the ATT will be evaded by the network of arms smugglers tolerated, and apparently supported in Russia and China. Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan also consider arms smuggling a worthwhile economic activity although most of the money paid to the governments here is not in form of taxes but as bribes to officials who consider arms smuggling good for the economy and an excellent way to supplement their government pay.

 

 


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