Page last updated at 05:07 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

UK misses Falklands mine deadline

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

Sign warning of a minefield on the Falkland Islands
Mines are scattered across the Falkland Islands

Britain will not clear the Falklands of landmines by next year despite signing an international treaty to do so.

The government will ask more than one hundred other countries which ratified the treaty for another 10 more years.

Campaigners say the move this week could damage the UK's international reputation and set a bad example that other nations may try to follow.

The Foreign Office said the remoteness of the Falklands and its varied terrain made the clearance very difficult.

Angus Crawford reports.

There are thought be about 20,000 unexploded landmines on the Falkland Islands planted by Argentine forces in 1982.

Barbed wire

Mike Summers is spokesman for the Islands Legislative Council. The nearest mines are just a five-minute drive away from his office in the capital Stanley.

"You see beautiful sand hills... surrounded with barbed wire with all sorts of mine signs on, saying it's very dangerous," he said.

But surprisingly, despite living with them for the last 25 years, he says the population is not calling for them to be cleared.

"We're rather agnostic about this."

If the money they were thinking of spending here could be better spent in one of those areas where children are still getting their legs blown off… we would be more than happy with that
Mike Summers, Falkland Islands

He explains that no civilians have been injured and that with the mined areas covering 0.1% of potential farming land, no-one has any need to venture near them.

"Clearing the mines here is neither an economic nor a serious social issue," says Mr Summers.

"If the money they were thinking of spending here could be better spent in one of those areas where children are still getting their legs blown off… we would be more than happy with that."

But in 1997 the UK signed the Ottawa convention banning landmines which also imposed a duty to clear the weapons.

Dunes to mountains

Britain was given until March next year, but has now said this is not possible.

The Foreign Office said the sheer range of terrain - from dunes to mountains, rock screes and pastures - requires a wide range of techniques that are expensive and time consuming.

Added to this, is the sheer distance of the Falkland Islands from the UK.

At 7,000 miles (11,265 km) sea freight takes four to six weeks' travel time from Britain.

So, under article five of the treaty, Britain is asking the other signatories to give it another 10 years, and this week more than 100 countries meet again in Geneva and will have to consider the request.

Other countries then might say since the UK has not de-mined the Falklands, we want to do the same
Prince Mired Bin Raad Al-Hussein

Prince Mired Bin Raad Al-Hussein was president of the last meeting of the countries which signed the treaty. He is also chairman of the group looking at the UK's plan and has voiced concerns over the request.

He said: "It's been quite a difficult issue for us."

He was educated in Britain and is quick to praise its de-mining work around the world, but he is worried that this could set a bad precedent.

"Other countries then might say, 'Since the UK has not de-mined the Falklands, we want to do the same'."

In reality it is unlikely that the signatory countries will refuse the UK's request.

'Fragile treaty'

The fear is that in the future the UK will be less able to demand other countries fulfil their obligations.

There is also a concern that if the UK's request is granted but with reservations it could show up weaknesses within the treaty.

This second possibility is what concerns Seb Taylor, chief executive of the non-governmental organisation Landmine Action.

He said: "The worst-case scenario is that it is passed with a number of abstentions. It will show the fragility of these kinds of treaties."

"I think it reflects badly on the UK as one of the leading state signatories," he added.

Unnecessary depletion

Mr Taylor points out that the British government gives £10m a year to clearance operations around the world and has a good reputation when it comes to arms control.

"It seems to be me this would be depleted unnecessarily."

The Foreign Office stresses that clearing the Falklands will be costly, difficult and possibly damaging to the environment and it points out that 14 other countries are also applying for more time.

A spokesman said: "The UK is fully compliant with all other aspects of the Convention, which sends a positive message to all other... parties."

That leaves Mike Summers and his fellow islanders stuck in the middle of a problem they didn't create.

"The UK government does have this obligation; the fact they can't deliver is I guess regrettable," he concedes.

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