Creative Destruction

April 7, 2006

On land mines and human rights

Filed under: International Politics — Tuomas @ 5:54 am

Somewhat serious, harsh and undoubtedly provocative post coming up.

I've been thinking about the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, ICBL. A lot. The discussion on the issue usually boils down to (generally left-wing) internationalists arguing against (generally right-wing) nationalists. Leftists argue that human rights are more important than national interests and vice versa. What I'm going to do, is to be radical here and attempt to debunk the claims ICBL makes, and to prove that the case against landmines is not nearly as simple as ICBL presents it as: (from their website, under The Problem -header)

Indiscriminate

* Antipersonnel mines cannot be aimed: they do not distinguish between the footfall of a soldier or a child.

* They lie dormant until a person or animal triggers their detonating mechanism.

* Then, landmines kill or injure civilians, soldiers, peacekeepers and aid workers alike.

Cannot be aimed: The place where landmines are "aimed" can be very precisely marked on a map. No weapon, in itself, distinguishes between civilians and soldiers. Also, many other weapons (air-to-surface bombs, land-to-land rockets such as the ones employed by Hezbollah against Israel), are very inaccurate and create mostly civilian casualties. Some are designed for that (and even more are just used for that, deliberately or accidentally.)

Lie dormant: Responsible use of landmines includes the aforementioned marking on a map, and removal of the mines after they are not needed. If this is not done, the fault is with humans, not the device. Some landmines are also timed with a self-destruction device (granted, these are hardly reliable, but then, some bombs explode later than they are supposed to, too).

Inhumane

* When triggered, a landmine unleashes unspeakable destruction.

* A landmine blast causes injuries like blindness, burns, destroyed limbs and shrapnel wounds. * Sometimes the victim dies from the blast, due to loss of blood or because they don’t get to medical care in time.

* Those who survive and receive medical treatment often require amputations, long hospital stays and extensive rehabilitation.

* The injuries are no accident, since landmines are designed to maim rather than kill their victims.

Unspeakable destruction: Sorry, that's not unique to landmines. Modern warfare is quite horrible, and modern weapons are unspeakably powerful.

Designed to maim, not kill, therefore evil (and the description of injuries, and lamentation of how expensive they are to treat): This is, simply put, a morally bankrupt line of thought. Since when is maiming worse than killing? Since when is a corpse a better outcome than a person without a leg? Oh, right. Corpses don't tug at our heartstrings in a same way as maimed children (which is horrible,let me be clear. But better than dead.)

Stolen lives, limbs and livelihoods

* Mine deaths and injuries over the past decades now total in the hundreds of thousands.

* It is estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 new casualties caused by landmines and unexploded ordnance each year. That means there are some 1,500 new casualties each month, more than 40 new casualties a day, at least two new casualties per hour.

* Most of the casualties are civilians and most live in countries that are now at peace.

* In Cambodia, for example there are over 45,000 landmine survivors recorded between 1979 and 2005. Some 20,000 people were killed in this period. More than 75 % of the total casualties were civilians. (Source: Landmine Monitor Report 2005)

I don't have much to say. It saddens me that so many developing countries are fraught with strife and civil war. People killing people in every imaginable way, including civilians. Again, I dislike the fact that injuries and deaths are conflated.

Development disaster

* Landmines deprive people in some of the poorest countries of land and infrastructure.

* Once there is peace most soldiers will be demobilized and give in their guns, mines however don't recognize a cease-fire.

* They hold up the repatriation of refugees and displaced people.

* They also hamper reconstruction and the delivery of aid.

* Assistance to landmine survivors can be an enormous strain on resources.

* Landmine casualties deprive communities and families of breadwinners.

* Mines also kill livestock and wild animals and wreak environmental havoc.

Some telling lines:

* Assistance to landmine survivors can be an enormous strain on resources. Implication: Dead people are no such strain. Therefore, weapons that are reliable killers are better.

* Mines also kill livestock and wild animals and wreak environmental havoc. Environmental havoc? Invidual animals killed is not "environmental havoc". Drying of lake Aral is environmental havoc, for example.

* Once there is peace most soldiers will be demobilized and give in their guns, mines however don't recognize a cease-fire. Fluffy-headed idealism. In developing countries those with guns make the rules. People join armies (and get guns) to increase their personal level of safety. In short, people with something to gain don't recognize cease-fires either.

*Every region in the world is mine-affected.

* More than 80 countries are affected to some degree by landmines and/or unexploded ordnance.

* Nobody knows how many mines are in the ground. But the actual number is less important than their impact: it can take only two or three mines or the mere suspicion of their presence to render a patch of land.

* Some of the most contaminated places are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chechnya, Colombia, Iraq, Nepal and Sri Lanka .

* Some countries with a mine problem don’t provide much public information about the extent of the problem such as Myanmar (Burma), India or Pakistan.

Every region, whatever they mean by that! I'm going to be real worried about those landmines when I go hiking in the forest. I'm sure city folks are real terrified while walking the street, too.

Some of the most contaminated places… Places fraught with civil war and general atmosphere of terror. Structural problems that will not disappear with banning mines.

Still work to be done

* Sadly, antipersonnel landmines are still being planted today and minefields dating back decades continue to lie in wait of innocent victims.

* Vast stockpiles of landmines remain in warehouses around the world and a handful of countries still produce the weapon.

First part I agree with. The second is ridiculous. Landmines in warehouses won't plant themselves.

From the history:

At the same time some armed non-state actors or rebel groups still produce home-made landmines such as improvised explosive devices

And the ban will solve this how exactly? They are ridiculously easy to make. This is a feel-good solution at best.

I think I've made a point on the ambiguity in the issue. I especially wanted to highlight the fact that the type of warfare in which landmines cause the most problems is unorganized civil war, with paramilitaries that do not respect any international laws whatsoever (planting mines without marking them, and terrorizing civilians). Basically the fact that landmines are not the root problem in the areas they cause the most problems, but istead, genocidal hatred, corruption and tyranny are, and sadly, this is exactly an area where the military industry makes profits.

One more thing:

Everyone agrees that war is a terrible thing. Perhaps not the most terrible, but to be avoided whenever possible. Thus, everything that reduces the likelyhood of war is a good thing. One thing that reduces the likelyhood of war is the fact that offensive warfare is far less cost effective than defensive warfare, thus, measures and technology that further widens this gap can be seen as preventive measures against war. Landmines are, by and large, a defender's weapon: a weapon that hampers the effectiveness of the attacker by reducing mobility.

UPDATE: On the military matters, I wrote on the comments:

Perhaps the simplest argument against the “military arguments don’t hold up” is the fact that militaries themselves do not agree with that, and find mines militarily useful. If the mines would be so obsolete, tactically, as ICBL claims, then there would be no problem as they would be voluntarily replaced by ‘better’ systems.

…the military isn’t the best expert on the human rights aspect, but on military matters, I personally find their expertise to be far superior to the opinions of human rights experts.

Conclusion: I remain unconvinced that landmines are objectively worse human rights -wise than many other modern weapons about which the campaigners are silent about. I remain unconvinced that 'banning' landmines 'everywhere' is anything other than a feel-good measure that is incapable of fixing or even meaningfully helping the areas where they cause problems.

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16 Comments »

  1. The distinctive moral problem with land mines is that they can’t be turned off after the conflict. Mines typically outlast the pretext for laying them. Often they prove more durable than the armies or the governments that installed them in the first place. Of course, if you’re the losing side, you’re not going to be in a good position to disarm your mines even if you want to. So, a large percentage of mines are going to become an unfair burden on someone else who had nothing to do with the conflict–future generations of defusers, bystanders, administrators, etc.

    Comment by Lindsay Beyerstein — April 7, 2006 @ 9:23 am | Reply

  2. The distinctive moral problem with land mines is that they can’t be turned off after the conflict.

    Of course they can. With proper knowledge (location, number, type) they can be turned off with some effort, and low risk.

    Of course, if you’re the losing side, you’re not going to be in a good position to disarm your mines even if you want to.

    Then turn over the maps that contain the location of minefields along with type of mines used. Unless, of course, you planned to use the mines against civilians in the first place (which isn't a mine-specific war crime).


    So, a large percentage of mines are going to become an unfair burden on someone else who had nothing to do with the conflict–future generations of defusers, bystanders, administrators, etc.

    Certainly not necessarily. If using "burnt land" -tactics (in the case of landmines that would be simply planting them without any plan on future dismantling), then yes.

    [edited to remove a somewhat national defense -related argument, I'll try to handle this without them to avoid impasse]

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  3. Also, on the unfair burden on someone with nothing to do with conflict…

    Modern warfare places disproportionate burden on people with who have nothing to do with conflict, and I’m not convinced that landmines are the major culprits here.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  4. Then turn over the maps that contain the location of minefields along with type of mines used. Unless, of course, you planned to use the mines against civilians in the first place (which isn’t a mine-specific war crime).

    I find your logic here utterly unpersuasive. Yes, in a theoretical feel-good fantasy world inside your head, this is a solution. But in the real world, it’s obvious that this is not happening in practice. To suggest a solution that you know is not happening in practice, and that you have no way to bring about, is not an answer at all; it’s just a refusal to engage with Lindsay’s point in any substantive manner.

    Certainly not necessarily.

    Who cares about necessarily? Lindsey’s correct in practice, and for an issue like this I’m more interested in the practice than in the Ivory-tower theory perspective.

    Modern warfare places disproportionate burden on people with who have nothing to do with conflict, and I’m not convinced that landmines are the major culprits here.

    Why does this point matter? I could say that muggings are not the major way in which criminals assault civilians, and I’d be correct, but that doesn’t establish that there’s anything wrong with trying to reduce the number of muggings.

    In your essay, I think you’re right when you say that maiming is not worse than killing. But many of your other arguments seem more about scoring points than about substance.

    For instance, saying “landmines in warehouses won’t plant themselves” is not a serious argument. The ICBLM does not claim landmines plant themselves. Their point, I presume, is that the only way to guarantee landmines in warehouses will never be deployed is to destroy them first, as the ICBLM proposes.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 7, 2006 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  5. It seems to me the focus on landmines is that they’re particularly nasty, unfair methods or devices of warfare and shouldn’t be allowed. Tuomas points out many touchy-feely arguments launched against them — arguments that have little to do with landmines themselves and much to do with warfare in general.

    The legacy of deployed landmines after such-and-such conflict is over is pretty nasty, I agree. Perhaps that’s the point. If they’re largely a defensive measure, a failed defense might wish those landmines to continue to do damage after incurring a loss. It’s not a moral motivation, perhaps, but then neither is warfare in general.

    I like Amp’s comments about practice vs. theory. Clearly, they’re not at all reconciled on this issue.

    Comment by Brutus — April 7, 2006 @ 12:32 pm | Reply


  6. I find your logic here utterly unpersuasive. Yes, in a theoretical feel-good fantasy world inside your head, this is a solution. But in the real world, it’s obvious that this is not happening in practice.

    Come now. In the theoretical feel-good fantasy world inside the heads of land mine -ban folks, a law banning the mines is a solution that will ensure mines will cease to exist and stop hurting civilians. It is about as realistic to expect that everyone obey the ban as it is to expect that mines will always be used responsibly. Turnabouts a fair play.

    In essence, the people who would be inclined to obey the ban, against their interests might as well have mapping projects.

    And since landmines are criminally easy to produce, the ban is practically unenforceable.


    To suggest a solution that you know is not happening in practice, and that you have no way to bring about, is not an answer at all; it’s just a refusal to engage with Lindsay’s point in any substantive manner.

    You have a point here. I suppose I owe Lindsay an apology, if she accepts it.

    Who cares about necessarily? Lindsey’s correct in practice, and for an issue like this I’m more interested in the practice than in the Ivory-tower theory perspective.

    Practical reality was my motivation on writing the article too. My response to Lindsay wasn’t the best possible.


    I could say that muggings are not the major way in which criminals assault civilians, and I’d be correct, but that doesn’t establish that there’s anything wrong with trying to reduce the number of muggings.

    Of course not. I just believe that this ban is more likely to increase human suffering than to alleviate it. To extend the metaphor, IMO the ban is something like banning mace or tasers from everyone on the pretext that muggers may use them too.


    For instance, saying “landmines in warehouses won’t plant themselves” is not a serious argument. The ICBLM does not claim landmines plant themselves.

    Yes, it was hyperbole, meant to match the hyperbole of ICBLM.

    That’s some sharp criticism (good!), but I will maintain that the case ICBLM makes is not very strong, is very much dependant on emotional factors, and it completely overlooks the balance of warfare (defense>offense), and thus may result in increased warfare.

    The strongest case against landmines is indeed the one Lindsay makes: The durability and potential for creating casualties long after conflict.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  7. Landmines are a tool, used to achieve one of two specific ends: to channel invading enemy forces into the geographic area where the defenders wish them to go, or to deny an enemy unfettered movement through a particular region.

    Let’s assume that ICBLM achieves its goal, and that (for unknown reasons) all the various bad actors of the world (fearing their wrath, no doubt) also agree not to make any more landmines.

    What, then, will nation-states do in order to achieve the strategic ends that they were using landmines for?

    If you can’t deploy something robotic to deny a piece of territory to the enemy, you will have to deploy a human. An entrenched and fortified zone can be held by relatively inexpensive conscript troops – the types that perhaps you wouldn’t have gone to the expense of arming in a landmine-permitting world, because the landmines give a better ROI. So countries will arm their dull rural population and build bunker networks, in order to make a particular territory expensive for an enemy to enter – the very population that the landmine campaigners worry about getting blown up in the war’s aftermath.

    I’m not really sure why it would be better to put the farmer in the army to be shot at, than it would be to put mines near his farm in the hopes of keeping his district out of the fight altogether.

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  8. Brutus, you grasped the problem.

    It isn’t a simple one, but I’ve picked this side.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

  9. From human rights viewpoint, that is. Once you bring the national defense aspect to it (like Robert just did), it appears quite simple.

    My point was that even the human rights argument is not very strong.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  10. In the theoretical feel-good fantasy world inside the heads of land mine-ban folks, a law banning the mines is a solution that will ensure mines will cease to exist and stop hurting civilians. It is about as realistic to expect that everyone obey the ban as it is to expect that mines will always be used responsibly.

    You’re setting the ICBLM’s burden too high here (and your own burden far too low). They don’t have to persuade me that “mines will cease to exist and stop hurting civilians” in order to justify their ban. All they have to is persuade me that their will be fewer mines and fewer civilian deaths and injuries if their ban is implemented.

    Likewise, it’s not enough for you to show that the ban won’t stop 100% of landmine deaths and injuries. You have to show that it would be unreasonable to believe that any significant number of civilians will be spared if landmines are banned. And for an issue like this, I’m inclined to see even a relatively low number of civilians saved as “significant.”

    To extend the metaphor, IMO the ban is something like banning mace or tasers from everyone on the pretext that muggers may use them too.

    You seem to be assuming that landmines are used exclusively as defensive weapons. That’s not true anymore. Nowadays, landmines are increasingly likely to be remotely-delivered mines, which are not especially defensive in use.

    That’s some sharp criticism (good!), but I will maintain that the case ICBLM makes is not very strong, is very much dependant on emotional factors, and it completely overlooks the balance of warfare (defense>offense), and thus may result in increased warfare.

    1) With all due respect, I don’t think the case you’ve made here is all that strong, either.

    2) There’s nothing inherently wrong with emotion in argument. Indeed, lack of emotion in argument can lead people to endorse policies that are heartless.

    3) Actually, they don’t “completely” ignore the military questions – they argue that landmines are tactically not needed and not effective. For example, scroll down this page to the “military arguments don’t hold up” section.

    I’m not a military expert by any means, and I haven’t taken the time to seriously look into this issue. So I’m not saying I necessarily think you’re wrong; just that I haven’t found your arguments so far persuasive. And I do find the argument Lindsay made persuasive.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 7, 2006 @ 5:03 pm | Reply


  11. 1) With all due respect, I don’t think the case you’ve made here is all that strong, either.

    2) There’s nothing inherently wrong with emotion in argument. Indeed, lack of emotion in argument can lead people to endorse policies that are heartless.

    3) Actually, they don’t “completely” ignore the military questions – they argue that landmines are tactically not needed and not effective. For example, scroll down this page to the “military arguments don’t hold up” section.

    1) Perhaps it isn’t, but as I think I’ve made a point on the ambiguity in the issue. implies, I didn’t claim it was. I’m happy with a draw of sorts.

    2)Absolutely. However, arguments that are deliberately designed to be emotionally manipulative are suspicious.

    3)Hmm, it seems that I can not avoid the 800lbs gorilla of military arguments? Perhaps a follow up, or an update, is in order (major straw-man alert went off on their arguments!).

    Comment by Tuomas — April 8, 2006 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

  12. Responsible use of landmines includes the aforementioned marking on a map, and removal of the mines after they are not needed.

    If Country A lays the landmines down in Country B, why should Country A care, post-conflict, about removing the mines? That involves a certain level of cost and danger. Country A is happier to let Country B deal with the after-effects of the land mines.

    Comment by mythago — April 9, 2006 @ 12:10 am | Reply


  13. If Country A lays the landmines down in Country B, why should Country A care, post-conflict, about removing the mines? That involves a certain level of cost and danger. Country A is happier to let Country B deal with the after-effects of the land mines.

    First: You assume that both countries exist as independent countries after the conflict, and are in equal standing.

    Second: Post-conflict, the situation isn’t a zero-sum game, in other words, the negative after-effects to Country B do not benefit Country A. Even if the actual work is done by Coutry B, Country A stands to gain in faciliating economic growth and good diplomatic relations with B. By providing at least information about the mines laid. Perhaps A would be happier to not provide it, but it isn’t their interest. Probably the deal to provide assistance and information would be part/requirement of the peace treaty.

    Third: Mines are more likely used on own country to reduce enemy mobility, or at least land that is accessed by own troops. If country A can just fill country B with mines, uncontested, then the situation is dire for B to begin with.

    Fourth: With the zero-sum logic you used, why would any country care about any civilian casualties or long-time effects of using certain weapons?

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 5:48 am | Reply

  14. Again, I’m not claiming that claiming that mines are exclusively used defensively. Just that the strategic benefit of using them defensively exceeds the benefit of using them offensively.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 5:50 am | Reply

  15. Ampersand:
    Perhaps the simplest argument against the "military arguments don't hold up" is the fact that militaries themselves do not agree with that, and find mines militarily useful. If the mines would be so obsolete, tactically, as ICBL claims, then there would be no problem as they would be voluntarily replaced by 'better' systems*.
    For example, Pentagon continues to develop anti-personnel landmines. And of course, countries such as Finland continue to find anti-personnel landmines to be indispensable (funny that).
    Perhaps the military isn't the best expert on the human rights aspect, but on military matters, I personally find their expertise to be far superior to the opinions of human rights experts.
    Finally, I don't oppose using resources to clear landmines on areas suffering from them.On the contrary, I believe any conscientous person should heartily endorse such measures. I just don't find that the fact whether some distant island like Barbados has joined some ban treaty having any link whatsoever to situation in Cambodia, for example. Phase one (banning landmines in Canada) does not have relation to phase two (clearing up landmines in Cambodia). Unless one holds a somewhat paternalistic view on the issue: That is, Cambodians will use landmines on the pretext "look, some first-world countries have stockpiles of landmines too!" I doubt they care.

    *: Addendum: In the light of the evolution discussions lately, it is safe to say that warfare is one of the most brutally socially Darwinist activites there is, and surely military doctrines are under great pressure to evolve.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 6:11 am | Reply

  16. Alas we are being fooled into accepting the lie that we have not collectively evolved past the need for warfare; economic ideologues are seeing to that. But while some of us are still caught in romantic delusions about war, and the phenomenon of the armchair observer abounds, many people have to deal with being at the business end of callous decisions made by politicians within governments and their armed wing – the military.
    Landmines, along with a great many things, should be banned and great care taken in the disposal of the remaining stockpiles.
    One’s time would be better spent working in support of, rather than picking fault at, an organisation that is trying to make a better world, within the diplomatic quagmire, while constantly being stonewalled and ridiculed.
    My question is why this pointless webpage?

    Comment by Paul — April 25, 2006 @ 5:51 am | Reply


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