Landmines have been the scourge of humanity in modern times. Hence the international community has been making efforts to rid the world of this menace. This effort resulted in the Landmines Treaty (the Ottawa Convention) or the Mines Ban Treaty (MBT). Though major users and manufacturers of the landmines are still not part of this treaty, Bangladesh surprised everyone recently by becoming the second country in South Asia to sign and implement the Ottawa Convention. The only other South Asian nation to have signed it is Maldives.
In March 2005, the Bangladesh army revealed that it has destroyed its stockpile of nearly 200,000 landmines. This process had begun in early November last year. Landmines from all over the country were brought to the army's ordnance factory near Dhaka for destruction. However, the Bangladesh army is still keeping 15,000 mines for training soldiers for missions like UN peacekeeping assignments.
Landmines are different from other weapons. They are termed weapons of the poor. Unfortunately it is the poor who are most affected by their random and indiscriminate use, both by state and non-state actors. Landmines cannot differentiate civilians from combatants. They do not degrade with time and can cause injury long after their intended use. What is worse, a third of their victims are children. Despite, their horrific nature, major users have not agreed to destroy them. As of 1 January 2005 a total of 152 states had signed the Mines Ban treaty. Experts believe that globally some 190 million mines are held by non-signatory countries, including China, Russia and the United States.
Landmines not only kill civilians long after wars have ended but render useless huge swathes of arable land in some of the poorest nations. According to a UN report, local communities get divested of their livelihood since large tracts of land have become no-go areas causing social and economic loss, famine, and disease. In Afghanistan, one of the most conflict prone states in modern times, agricultural production has gone down by 55 percent due to the widespread sowing of landmines.
Interestingly, it was the US that took the lead in the international effort to ban landmines, but ended up refusing to sign the Treaty. It wanted to retain for itself the ability to use then selectively like in South Korea. Moreover, it was also optimistic that it would find an alternative to landmines. Later it was felt that the alternative could prove more dangerous. Hence, the Bush administration decided to abandon the objective of joining the Mine Ban Treaty on 27 February 2004 and declared its intention to retain anti-personnel mines indefinitely.
Initially, when the process of banning landmines started in 1992, Bangladesh was reluctant to join. Its military wanted to retain a cheap but efficient protective weapon. According to the 2003 Landmine Monitoring Report, Bangladesh had acquired these landmines from China, Iran, India, Pakistan, the United States and former Yugoslavia. It has landmines on its border with Myanmar that were laid by its neighbour in 1993 to stop the flow of refugees into Bangladesh. The landmine report said at least 64 Bangladeshis were killed in landmine blasts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border between 1997 and 2001, otherwise, landmines have not been used in Bangladesh since the War of Independence in 1971.
Bangladesh is an India locked country from which it does not face any serious threat of aggression. Besides, if it lays landmines on its border with India, it will hurt its own citizens who cross in thousands into India illegally almost everyday. It will also work against its policy of allowing its territory to be used by Indian insurgent groups. Bangladesh is also free from major internal insurgencies after the signing of an accord with the Chakmas. Thus, for all practical purposes, landmines have become redundant for Bangladesh. It is also getting Canadian funds to destroy them.
Though Bangladesh has destroyed its present stockpile of landmines at Canadian cost, its effort lacks credibility as it has not relinquished its policy of allowing Indian insurgent groups to operate from its territory. These groups have the support of some states in South Asia, and are no respecters of treaties or conventions. These elements use landmines freely. Moreover, with Bangladesh becoming the hub of arms trafficking in South Asia it would not be difficult for it to acquire new stocks of landmines. The destruction of landmines in Bangladesh may help it to win some brownie points internationally, but this will not be a sincere effort unless it stops its support for the Indian insurgent groups who are likely to use landmines.