Deadly Ground

The U.S. stalls on land mines

by Bill Myers

In These Times magazine, July 2002


PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA-Here in Cambodia, the Killing Fields still kill. The war is over, but the bombs and the rockets and the mines-especially the mines-still lunge from the ground, taking arms, legs and lives as though peace had never come.

So don't tell anyone here the U.S. government's continuing refusal to ban land mines is only symbolic. President Bush is currently "reviewing" the 1997 land mine treaty, which 142 nations have already signed. The treaty forbids countries from producing, buying or using land mines.

In the meantime, Cambodians live-or die-at the other end of that policy question. In April alone, according to Red Cross statistics, Cambodia saw 61 casualties-mostly poor farmers just trying to clear their parcels of land.

Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined places on earth, where anywhere between 4 million and 6 million land mines are still waiting to claim their victims. "It's impossible to tell you how many years it will take to clear," says Khem Sophoan, director general for the Cambodian Mine Action Center, which helps clear Cambodia's ground.

Khem takes the long view. Ask him his goal for the future, and the answer is almost as shocking as anything else you can hear when you talk about land mines. "We would like to reduce to zero victims by 2020," he says. Isn't that a little long to wait for people to stop being maimed and killed? "Well ..."

The battle against land mines here in Cambodia is more concrete than the campaign to get the United States to sign the land mine treaty, because Cambodia's grim experience has given it worldwide expertise. Its deminers went to Kosovo in 1999, and are scheduled to head for Eastern Africa and Afghanistan this summer. Its casualty reporting system is one of the most advanced on the planet, as is its newly developed computerized map of mine fields and unexploded ordnance (UXO) hot spots in nearly 114,000 villages.

But it's impossible to separate the United States from this narrative. According to Aki Ra, the director of a land mine museum in north central Cambodia, the United States (along with China, which has also refused to sign the treaty) was among the biggest suppliers of land mines to the Khmer Rouge during its guerrilla war with the Vietnamese army in the '80s. Much of the UXO Iying in wait came from U.S. bombers during the '70s.

If the United States can contribute to mine removal, why won't it sign the treaty? The Defense Department now says it needs the mines for defense in South Korea and elsewhere, and military contractors are fighting any spending cutback.

But in its own way, the United States pays at least part of the price for all of that mayhem. Washington is one of the largest donors to Cambodia-with nearly $35 million in aid committed yearly-and, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the United States is also one of the leading donors in helping other countries clear their mines. So refusing the anti-mine treaty means American taxpayers pay on both ends- first to the defense contractors, and then to the people they maim.

The price tag on these mines for Cambodia and other poor nations is much higher, of course. Besides the cost in lives and livelihood, land mines are a huge drain on an impoverished economy. It costs 65 cents to clear one meter of land, Khem says. That adds up, since nearly half of Cambodian soil is "tainted" by mines and UXO.

This is set against a booming but poor population desperate for land. More than 54 percent of land mine casualties in the past two years have been work-related. It's a sign, activists say, of a coming land crunch that continues to thrust people on top of mines and UXO. The mines also mean that normal development, like building schools and roads and bridges, can't get underway.

And so Khem and his deminers carry on their work. They clear about 15 square kilometers of land per year. If he doesn't get caught up in the politics of the issue, it's because he has his eyes on a bigger prize. "I want my country to be rich," he says. "And healthy."

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