NEW YORK — “I heard a thundering sound and saw darkness all around me. I spent three months in the hospital, and lost my leg and my son. I had stepped on a landmine and the world as I knew it had come to a halting end,” wrote Monica Piloya, chairperson of the Gulu/Amuru Landmine Survivors’ Network in northern Uganda — one of thousands of women who have been maimed by landmines.
On Nov. 30, 15 Nobel Peace laureates sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, urging him to have the United States join the ban on antipersonnel landmines. The U.S. is still one of 39 states that remain outside the treaty. The 10h Meeting of the States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty was held at the United Nations in Geneva last week. The U.S. attended as an observer delegation.
Mrs. Piloya’s ordeal didn’t end: “I returned to live with my husband, but everything had changed. He verbally abused me, telling me I was useless, helpless. My in-laws told him, ‘Monica is disabled, get another woman.’ After a year, my husband left. I was four months pregnant at the time and struggling to care for my older child as well.”
Traumatic as her losses were, Mrs. Piloya overcame them and slowly rebuilt her life. She started selling fish in the local market to cover hers and her child’s expenses, and has become the leader of a landmine survivor organization in northern Uganda.
Not all landmine victims are able to reorient their lives. For those who are not killed, disabilities leave permanent scars, particularly for children. UNICEF estimates that 30 to 40 percent of mine victims are children under 15 years old.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people are injured or killed by landmines every year, and that millions more suffer from the economic, physical and psychological consequences of the weapon. The U.S. State Department estimates that fewer than one in four landmine amputees is fitted with an adequate prosthesis.
At present there are millions of landmines and other unexploded ordnance in the ground in more than 80 countries. From 1969 to 1992 the U.S. exported an estimated 4.4 million antipersonnel mines to countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Somalia, and Vietnam.
Landmines have also exacted a toll on the U.S. military. These weapons have killed thousands of U.S. and allied troops in every U.S.-fought conflict since World War II, including hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to civilian and soldiers from those countries.
In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, landmines caused 34 percent of U.S. casualties. Nevertheless, the U.S. is among 14 countries that have not agreed to never again produce the weapon.
Arguments in favor of using landmines are not valid. In 1996, an International Committee of the Red Cross study, “Antipersonnel Landmines — Friend or Foe?,” concluded that they are not indispensable weapons and do not necessarily provide a military advantage.
In addition, because they are indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, their use violates international humanitarian law. Among the provisions of the Additional Protocol I (1977) to the Geneva Conventions are rules aimed at protecting civilians by limiting the “means and methods of warfare.” Although this convention does not deal with specific weapons, it provides a general framework of rules applicable in international armed conflicts.
In 2009 U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declared that the U.S. would not join its NATO allies and other countries in formally agreeing to a landmine ban. By insisting on this policy, the U.S. is complicit in the unnecessary suffering and maiming of thousands of civilians worldwide.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.