By disposing of its last 25 antipersonnel mines Saturday, Japan becomes the 38th country to rid itself of the deadly devices.

Over the past four years, Japan has destroyed about 1 million Self-Defense Forces antipersonnel mines, in line with an international treaty it signed in December 1997.

The disposal was handled by three private companies at a cost of about 2 billion yen, the Defense Agency said.

“This marks a turning point,” said Toshihito Shimizu, one of the leading members of the Japanese branch of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for playing a key role in realizing the treaty, known as the Ottawa Convention.

“It is meaningful that the state is demonstrating that it is carrying out its (treaty) obligations,” he said.

The treaty prohibits signatories from using, producing, stockpiling or trading in antipersonnel mines. Adherents must destroy their inventories within four years of ratification.

In March 1998, Japan stopped producing antipersonnel mines except those used for disposal practice, as allowed under the treaty, according to the Defense Agency.

The agency claimed Japan has not used or exported land mines at least since the SDF’s establishment in 1954.

Japan is following a global trend of phasing out land mine inventories. Since 1997, and with the exception of countries and territories experiencing warfare, there have been significant reductions in their use, trade, stockpiling and production, as well as the number of casualties, according to the ICBL.

“It is heartening to see such progress since the birth of the treaty five years ago,” Jody Williams, a former ICBL coordinator who won the Nobel Prize along with her organization, said on the fifth anniversary of the convention.

Yet Williams, Shimizu and others involved in antimine activities know millions of the weapons still plague many parts of the world, and neutralizing them is a monumental task.

Even though the total number of mines has been decreasing, 94 nations are still believed to stockpile some 230 million antipersonnel mines, with 110 million in China, followed by Russia with between 60 million and 70 million and the United States with 11.2 million, according to the Landmine Monitor Report 2002, drawn up by the ICBL.

While the SDF has gotten rid of its mines, there are still thousands on Japanese soil, where U.S. forces are estimated to have 115,000 antipersonnel mines, according to the report.

The U.S. is the only NATO member that has not joined the treaty, which now counts 131 signatories, but it is studying the possibility of signing by 2006.

The ICBL also reported that mines are still in place in 90 nations, and around 50 people are killed or maimed every day either by them or by unexploded ordnance.

Although they pose the same deadly threat, such ordinance and antitank mines, which are defined by the Ottawa Convention as “devices designed to detonate by more than 100 kg of pressure,” are not covered by the treaty.

Undetected mines can be detonated decades after they are planted, killing and maiming the unwitting.

And at the current pace of clearing mines, which is an expensive and time-consuming pursuit, experts say it will take centuries to rid the world of the menace.

Japan is known for its advanced mine detection technology, but Kenji Suzuki of the Japan Alliance for Humanitarian Demining Support, a specialist group engaged in clearing mines, said current detectors have shortcomings.

“Metal detectors react to all metal substances. But some mines are not even made of metal,” he said.

His group has developed a radar to find all kinds of buried mines, but Suzuki said it can only work “in smooth and dry soil.”

Antipersonnel mines cost just a few dollars to make, but they cost hundreds to detect and neutralize.

However, the ICBL said international funding for clearing mines and assistance has stagnated; 2001 saw the amount drop by $4 million from the previous year to $237 million.

Japan, when it signed the Ottawa Convention, pledged 10 billion yen in financial assistance over five years and has already fulfilled this promise.

According to Foreign Ministry officials, more than 80 percent of the total went to mine-clearance assistance, around 10 percent was used to help victims and 0.3 percent for educational activities.

“The (Japanese) government should not stop” now that it has met the Ottawa Convention’s requirements, said Shimizu of the Japan Campaign to Ban Landmines. “It must call on other nations to follow its example.”

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