I had an opportunity to visit Taiwan recently, representing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1997 for its work to bring an end to the scourge of antipersonnel landmines.
The ICBL has been watching carefully the discussion within the Legislative Yuan this year, in relation to draft bills to consider the resolution of problems related to landmines in Taiwan. The ICBL was particularly interested in the fact that two bills on landmines were submitted for debate, and that between them almost one-third of the legislature was involved in sponsoring them, across party lines.
One of the bills was introduced by the legislative representative from mine affected Kinmen. After debate within the Legislative Yuan, the Landmine Regulation Act was passed mid-year.
The resulting legislation bans any future production and export of the weapon, requires clearing, suggests a timeframe and provides for some level of compensation for future victims.
This is all very good, but antipersonnel landmines have not been produced for a quarter of a century in Taiwan, and Taiwan is never known to have exported them.
The legislation debated and passed this year does little more than ratify the existing situation, but goes no further. While the Act requests clearance in seven years, extensions of this deadline are permitted and there is no limit on allowable extensions. The draft bill from the legislator from Kinmen gave a five-year definitive limit for clearing, but this was changed by the Legislative Yuan during debate.
Taiwan is to be congratulated on its past compensation allowances for landmine victims and their families in Taiwan. The Act passed this year removes some time and incident restrictions of previous compensation and extends the possibility of compensation into the future.
However, two prohibitions which form the core requirements of the global treaty banning landmines are not mentioned by the antipersonnel landmine regulation act: use of the weapon is not prohibited and military stockpiles remain untouched.
Fortunately for the Taiwanese, most do not encounter landmines in their daily lives. There are no antipersonnel landmines in the capital and decisionmakers not only don't see them but they rarely, if ever, see any of their victims. The national media organs are unaffected by them and thus information regarding landmines rarely occurs in the media.
It is a different story for the people who live close to them in the islands near China, however.
During the 1950s, the employment of landmines was not questioned in most parts of the world, but political and military realities have changed in the past half century. Even casual observation will note that more Taiwanese have been killed or injured by the landmines laid in Taiwan than Peoples' Liberation Army commandos; and Taiwan's mine fields -- an estimated 200 of them -- have not noticeably reduced cross-strait belligerence.
The Taiwanese military has not announced its willingness to let go of the antipersonnel landmine, but its stated reason in a press release issued after the Act was passed by the Legislative Yuan is revealing. The Ministry of Defense did not list the maintenance of national sovereignty as a reason not to remove them; rather, it listed smuggling and illegal immigration as the main reason for their continued employment.
While smuggling and illegal immigration are certainly worrying problems, they are not crimes punishable by death in Taiwan. Like most countries, Taiwan will attempt to combat smuggling and illegal immigration with laws which impose fines, jail or expulsion as punishment. The use of the antipersonnel landmine in combating these crimes is essentially the use of lethal force, and a de facto death sentence for the unlucky.
The Legislative Yuan must question whether they are truly necessary to address the current situation and indispensable in the maintenance of national sovereignty, especially given the collateral cost in human lives. It also represents the utilization of a tool that has become unanimously turned down by the community of nations.
A benefit to the military of the ban -- which is invisible and intangible -- revealed itself to me when I was in Malaysia as a representative of the ICBL to the final destruction of Malaysia's antipersonnel landmine stockpile.
A military engineer was assigned to me, and I was able to examine all parts of the destruction process -- from the inventory of the weapon to their transport and method of demolition. On the final day when the very last landmines were destroyed, all the officers at the military site erupted in cheers and claps. I turned to my military companion and asked why they did that. He was silent for a moment and then said to me: "It is very difficult for me to describe our emotions.
This is an item that for all my professional life as a military officer I have been trained to take care of. And yet now that we have destroyed them all, we cheered. No one ordered us to do so. We just did it.
I look forward to returning to Taiwan, hopefully in the very near future, to observe the cheers of the Taiwanese military as it destroys the very last landmine in the country.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is an editor of the annual Landmine Monitor Report.
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