Making a Killing

by Paul Donovan

New Internationalist magazine, September 1997


When I returned from Cambodia in 1992 I was numbed, having seen so much devastation caused by antipersonnel land mines. The callousness of mainly Northern governments and their so called defense industries in supplying such weapons was difficult to absorb.

As I learned more about landmines, from the comfort of a London suburb, I experienced a growing incredulity at the depths to which arms manufacturers will stoop in order to make profits. It was difficult to picture what type of human being sat designing antipersonnel mines in bright colors and weird shapes that attracted children to pick them up. Though the companies deny such an intention behind their designs, the blinded and mutilated children in countries like Afghanistan and Cambodia tell a different story.

Author Erik Prokosch describes the phenomenon of the weapons designer in his book The Technology of Killing. 'A weapons designer is not, first and foremost, a killer: he is a statistician, a metallurgist, an engineer,' says Prokosch. But when this individual is put into the area of munitions he is transformed and thinks only in terms of 'lethal area estimates', 'kill probabilities' and 'effective casualty radius'. He then probably returns to his home in the suburbs to play with his own children without making the connection between his day's work and the devastation caused on the other side of the world. But life for those who employ the designers is even less complicated: it is all about the bottom line -- profit.

As the campaign to ban landmines has gathered pace it has been bizarre to watch the manufacturers of these weapons constantly shifting position yet always seeming to come out making a handsome profit at the expense of the poor.

In the early 1980s there was a realignment in much of the weapons industry whereby a cozy relationship was formed between manufacturers and politicians, often to the exclusion of military planners. The effect was that this unholy alliance came to dictate -- even more than in the past -- what weapons armies would use. The overriding motivation was profit. The linkage between these two parties and their primary goal was never more obvious than in the maneuvering that went on around the review conference of the UN Inhumane Weapons Convention Protocol II in May 1996. The position adopted by the Conservative British Government at that time was a perfect reflection of arms-industry interests. The British delegation favored a ban on all antipersonnel mines except the 'smart' variety that were fitted with self-destruct mechanisms. The position adopted disregarded the opposing view of military men like Gulf War Commander Sir Peter de la Billiere and General Sir Hugh Beech but found favor with British companies who had cornered the market in providing the technology to make the complex fuses for ' smart mines '. The British company Ferranti is the leading producer of such technology.

Another aspect of the review conference that showed how the interests of manufacturers were given a higher priority than those of victims was the question of definition. An antipersonnel landmine was defined as a mine 'primarily designed to be exploded by the presence of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons'. The UK Working Group on Landmines argues that the phrase 'primarily designed' could allow producers to carry on as usual by claiming their mines' 'primary' purpose was other than killing people. It remains to be seen whether the Ottawa Process can avoid such semantic trickery.

It was after the Gulf War that arms manufacturers saw a golden opportunity to diversify and make money out of clearing up the mess that their products had caused in the first place. The growing movement for a ban on landmines has spurred more arms companies to take up this practice, known as 'double dipping'. While highly paid PR departments have sought to portray double dipping as a somehow virtuous and redeeming activity, the commercial advantages for the transnational arms corporations have often been lost in the small print. The knowledge that a company that clears mines but still makes them can gain in the field can be of inestimable value. In 1988 a company called CMS started developing mines for the US military but after the Gulf War it moved into the 'after math (clearance) business'. Today CMS is the largest ordinance-clearing company in the US and makes $160 million profits annually. Fred Dibella, CMS Vice President, insists that in Kuwait 'we have not cleaned up bombs or mines that were of our own manufacture'. However, CMS is owned by Deutsche Aerospace, whose parent company is the German company Daimler Benz. Deutsche Aerospace also own Messerschunurr-Bol, an arms manufacturer, whose products include a new generation of scatterable mines.

In 1991 the British company Royal Ordnance was quick to get its nose into the Gulf War trough and won a $90 million contract to clear landmines. Amongst the munitions found in Kuwait was the L-9 bar mine that was built by Royal Ordnance in its previous incarnation as a manufacturer of antipersonnel landmines. At the same time as Royal Ordnance was winning clearance contracts in Kuwait and later in Mozambique, its parent company British Aerospace was busily selling a range of lethal weapons across the world.

The French company Sofremi was formed in 1986 as a partnership between the French Interior Ministry and four defense contractors to export weapons. In 1997 the same company won a $111-million contract to clear mines in Kuwait.

From South Africa comes another proponent of the 'cradle to grave' services offered by some transnational arms manufacturers. Mechem is the research and development wing of Denel, the government-owned arms-manufacturing company. Mechem has won multi-million-dollar contracts for the clearing of mines in Mozambique and Angola. Vernon Joynt of Mechem, who has helped design landmines for the South African Defense Force in the past, has seized the opportunity and is now a keen advocate of a ban on landmines. For 26 years Joynt researched and developed landmines and other equipment, much of which was deployed by South Africa's client groups in Mozambique and Angola. He has proudly boasted that 'there are some mines in Angola which no-one will be able to find without our help'. Mr. Joynt is also one of the UN's most trusted advisors and well placed to push future technological solutions to the crisis caused by his and other antipersonnel landmines.

Having established themselves in the 'double dipping' business, arms companies have now seen another commercial opportunity to come out of a potential ban and the growing humanitarian demand for a faster clear-up rate. In the 1990s, they argue, the answer to faster mine clearance must be in developing advanced technology, the prerequisite of which is research funding. So while funding for present demining techniques is pitifully low US and EU funds are being poured into research involving infra-red technology, neutron moderators and ground radar. Should the research fail to find a quick way to clear landmines all will not be lost given that the findings are bound to have applications for a big transnational arms company with many subdivisions.

Organizations like the Mines Advisory Group argue that there is no magic solution to landmine clearance. The only sustainable answer, they say, is to devote greater resources to training up more indigenous people to clear mines. The mine-clearance process is slow and laborious - involving teams of two people working in strips with a metal detector and prod - but this is still the only way to ensure 100-per-cent clearance of an area. But of course there is no profit in such an approach. The companies responsible for producing the millions of mines littering the world are not interested in spending money to train native deminers in the simple technology of clearance. The better solution in profit-seeking terms is to bring in expats and military personnel to do the work on lucrative contracts while at the same time stashing away research funds in the name of a miracle cure.

Unfortunately, governments still appear to be singing to the companies' tune. At a recent conference in London, the Secretary of State for International Development in the new British Labor Government, Clare Short, stressed the need to get the Ministry of Defense and British technology involved in developing a new solution.

For government and commercial arms companies antipersonnel mines have for many years been a source of cheap and easy profits. The grand slaughter of innocents known as the Gulf War was the zenith for arms manufacturers to see their products in action. Ever keen to diversify those same manufacturers saw the chance to make money out of the clear-up. From this perspective the campaign for a ban was never a threat to these interests - simply another opportunity. For these companies the added chance to win massive research grants to chase an illusive solution is simply the icing on the cake.


Paul Donovan has written regularly for the New Internationist on landmines and other aspects of the arms trade. He has been involved with the international campaign for a worldwide ban on landmines since it began in 1993.

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