Sunday, 20 August 2017

Princess Diana and the evil of landmines

Princess Diana died this month 20 years ago and the media (apart from the Morning Star) have been commemorating her death with tasteless posthumous intrusions into her private life. What no one mentions is the one thing she really deserves to be remembered for: her surprising but genuine commitment to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Such awful weapons still pose an existential threat in many parts of the world, even when the wars that brought them have long since become history.

The Vietnamese government says that around 14 million tons of ordnance, nearly three times the amount used by the allies in the Second World War, was dropped on Vietnam between 1959 and 75. Between 10-30 per cent of that failed to detonate and now lies scattered throughout the country like deadly poison. Explosions caused by buried bombs and mines claimed around 105,000 civilian lives between 1975 and 2007. In total the Vietnamese government estimates that around 15 per cent of the total surface area of the country is still contaminated in this way. A war that families in the farming communities did nothing to start and knew little about, has never ended. Every time they go out to plough their fields or clear weeds, they risk losing legs and arms or even their lives. And these mines target indiscriminately men, women, children and animals. Everywhere you go in the country you will come across some of the many maimed and disabled individuals, their lives shattered by this ongoing war that no one talks about.

In 1962 Laos was drawn into the Vietnam war despite being an internationally-declared neutral state and between 1964-73, the USA dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on the country – the equivalent of one plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare and many of those unexploded bombs still lie undetected in the country and a re killing daily.

Cambodia, too, is another neutral country that the US chose to bomb indiscriminately in its desperate attempt to dislodge guerrillas hiding in the jungle. It also still has a major problem with landmines. Today there are around 40,000 amputees in the country – one of the highest rates in the world.

Courageous bomb removal experts are working tirelessly to disarm and remove these bombs but it is a Herculean task. At the present rate, it would take another 50 years or more to free these countries to an acceptable degree of these hidden dangers.

There is, however, now some hope that new technology, developed in Israel, could help track and defuse these bombs and mines more effectively. A team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University is using genetically modified bacteria to detect hidden mines. The bacteria give off a fluorescent light when mines are close. The mines are, iniquitously, often made of plastic, and are thus invisible to metal detectors. The bacteria react to tiny amounts of vapour given off by explosives. Such technology could bring about a transformational change and save thousands of lives once it is made available.

Since 1997 there has been a Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, and it has become the cornerstone of an international effort to end the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines. It came into force in March 1999. To date, 162 states have formally agreed to be bound by the Convention, including the UK, but significantly not the United States, Russia or Israel who have yet to sign up.
Princess Diana was a tragic figure caught up in the archaic rituals of the monarchy and the intrusive prurience of the tabloids, but clearly her love for her own children and empathy with others gave impetus to her commitment to the campaign against land mines. Something the ruling class was undoubtedly unhappy about. For that she certainly deserves to be remembered.

The information in this article was based on the recent bulletin from the organisation, Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, written by Mary Lidgard.

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