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HEALTH-AFGHANISTAN: Detritus of War Keeps Claiming New Victims
NEW YORK, Jan 7 (IPS) - For the first time, many more civilians are being killed and maimed in Afghanistan by dud munitions than by landmines, which were more or less outlawed in 1999 but linger around the world as the wreckage of earlier wars.
A study published in Friday's British Medical Journal says that the biggest problem is now unexploded ordnance (UXO) -- incidentally, much easier and cheaper to get rid of than landmines -- which includes grenades, bombs, mortar shells, and cluster munitions that fail to detonate on impact.
Using data collected by the United Nations Mine Action Centre and the International Committee of the Red Cross, researchers discovered that in fact, the casualty ratio had precisely "flipped" in recent years. As the proportion of injuries from UXO went from 37 percent in 1997 to 57 percent in 2002, the proportion of injuries from landmines fell correspondingly from 57 percent to 36 percent.
And these numbers only tell part of the story, said one of the two lead researchers, Dr. Oleg Bilukha of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
"The real casualties are at least twice as much, maybe more," he told IPS. "For example, deaths represent only 7 percent, while in other countries (burdened with landmines and other UXO) we know that they are 30 to 50 percent of casualties."
In essence, if the victim didn't live long enough to make it to the nearest clinic, their death went unreported. Tragically, nearly half of the injuries from dud munitions were among children, mostly boys, who had been playing or tampering with the explosives.
Most of the landmines in Afghanistan are left over from the decade-long Soviet occupation of the 1980s, but watchdog groups say that newer UXO accumulated during the U.S. invasion to oust the Taliban regime in October 2001.
According to Human Rights Watch, "cluster bombs played a role throughout the U.S. air campaign. In the first week alone, Air Force B-1 bombers reportedly dropped fifty CBU-87s, containing 10,100 bomblets, in five missions."
Bilukha was cautious in explaining the rising toll in Afghanistan, noting that the numbers started shifting before the U.S. air attacks and that the available data is too limited to map specific battle areas to specific injuries.
But he hoped the study would inform policy debates about how to modify these munitions to make them less dangerous to civilians.
"Should we make (cluster and other munitions) more noticeable, so people will not stumble over them, or less noticeable, so children will not pick them up? This is the question we are posing," he said.
In November 2003, dozens of humanitarian groups from 42 countries joined together at The Hague in the Netherlands to urge a global moratorium on the use, production and trade of cluster munitions, which scatter hundreds of "bomblets" and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians worldwide.
They hoped to convince governments who had signed the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a 1980 treaty banning the most inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, to ratify a new protocol on UXOs.
Just over a year later, the Cluster Munitions Coalition says that the lack of progress has "called into question the usefulness of the CCW" treaty itself. In an irate closing statement at the CCW's annual meeting last fall, Coalition delegates complained that a session of military experts tasked with addressing the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions was adjourned after just half an hour.
"Some of the more progressive governments -- Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand -- are starting to see that this is a problem, and made statements at the CCW," said Thomas Nash of Mines Action Canada.
"But the main holders of these weapons -- the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom -- have taken some measures that may be commendable but are not enough to stop the problem."
"It is very difficult to influence these countries, as we've seen in the landmine campaign," he said. "They have significant geopolitical security needs, and they are insulated against public opinion in many ways. The first step is to establish an international norm."
Nash said it was critical to assemble hard statistics demonstrating the extent of the problem -- like Bilukha's study, and an even more comprehensive global survey of the impact of cluster munitions due for release in March.