Maurice Baril, former head of Canada's military and a leading activist against land mines, forced an uncomfortable issue onto the public agenda in Pakistan yesterday by holding a conference to discuss anti-personnel mines.
Land mines are normally a dangerous topic for Pakistani journalists, as the government tries to avoid criticism for refusing to sign the Ottawa Convention that bans the small devices designed to kill or maim pedestrians.
"Normally, we couldn't cover this issue," said a journalist who listened to Mr. Baril's speech at a hotel in Islamabad. "You ask the military: 'How many land mines have you planted? How many do you have in stock?' They don't respond, and later they might detain you."
It's an especially sensitive topic now, one week after a land mine killed 28 people in a Pakistani wedding party and two weeks after President Pervez Musharraf alarmed some of his allies by suggesting that Pakistan should fence and mine its border with Afghanistan. Four undercover agents for the Pakistani military were rumoured to be attending the conference in Islamabad yesterday, which was organized by the Canadian high commission.
"We find ourselves attracting a lot of attention with this campaign," Mr. Baril said. He arrived in Pakistan on Saturday, and leaves today for a similar visit to India. He met with Pakistani defence officials, representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and regional leaders from the troubled province of Balochistan.
The last time Pakistan declared its use of land mines was in 2002, during its conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Two years later, the military said it had swept the areas and removed 100 per cent of the mines.
But Pakistan continues to face violent unrest in the tribal areas along its western border, and non-governmental organizations complain that all sides in those conflicts are using anti-personnel mines.
"They told us they're using mines, which is not a secret," Mr. Baril said. "They say it's a weapon of the poor, and they say they have no choice. But they're creating a mess for themselves."
Delegations from more than 120 countries met in Ottawa in 1997 to sign an accord that banned the manufacture and use of land mines. The United States, Russia, China and most Middle Eastern countries refused to join the agreement. The number of signatories has since grown to 149, however, and advocates such as Mr. Baril continue to lobby other governments.
Raza Shah Khan, executive director of Sustainable Peace and Development Organization, a Pakistani group with financial support from Canada that campaigns against land mines, said the number of land mines in Pakistan's tribal areas is growing, and 90 to 95 per cent of their victims are civilians.
"We have a new problem arising from the number of land mines in tribal areas," Mr. Khan said.
Tribesmen have started using land mines to settle personal grudges. Trying to dissuade these warriors with ordinary arguments about civilian casualties wouldn't be effective, said Qibla Ayaz, dean of Peshawar University's faculty of Islamic studies. That's why Mr. Ayaz and his colleagues have written a religious book using lessons from the Koran to describe why land mines are unholy, and started teaching these lessons in workshops and seminars.
In his speech to the convention, Mr. Baril described a difficult choice he faced in 1997, when he was Chief of the Defence Staff, and was trying to decide whether to support the initiative that would force his troops to forsake a weapon.
"For us, the professional military, giving up a tool of our trade is difficult, emotional and controversial," he said. "Some of my army subordinates though I'd been corrupted by too many UN operations. Others thought I was turning politically correct. Some of my subordinates were offended that their opinions were completely ignored."
But the Canadian Forces learned to adjust their tactics to compensate for the loss, Mr. Baril said, and he suggested that the Pakistani military could do the same.
By the numbers
Year in which Pakistan said it "faces no problem of mines"
Number of people killed by land mines in Pakistan in 2004
Estimated number of land mines stockpiled by Pakistan
Fine (U.S.) for openly selling land mines in Pakistan's Dara Adam Khel arms bazaar near Peshawar
Price (U.S.) to secretly purchase an anti-personnel land mine
Source: Landmine Monitor Report 2005