Geneva. -- Imagine a weapon that would inflict terrible war wounds, that makes no sound, that can be fired from the hip without particular accuracy and that can hit its target a half a mile away.
Imagine, too, that this weapon were not just in the hands of your regular army but the a la mode weapon for guerrilla forces, mafia and drug gangs and terrorist groups.
Let me introduce, not the weapon of the fantastic future, but one that is soon to start coming off the mass-production line -- the laser rifle.
According to a report just published here by the International Committee of the Red Cross, "Laser weapons are easy to transport and stockpile and are therefore most likely to be used in internal conflict. Experts anticipate the danger of such weapons' becoming as widespread as chemical weapons, had these not been prohibited."
The Red Cross, which for years has been content with its quiet role as battlefield worker and diplomatic custodian of the Geneva Conventions, has, under its present president, Cornelio Sommaruga, started to become rather more outspoken.
In August it organized the International Conference for the Protection of War Victims, in which Mr. Sommaruga called for "nothing less than the resuscitation of the observance of international humanitarian law." He regularly goes on the record to condemn the arms trade, and to argue for the separation of humanitarian aid from military operations, including that of U.N. peacekeepers. Now laser weapons are in his sights. "For once, maybe, we could outlaw a weapon before it hits the production line."
This week the Red Cross sent a statement to all its branches in almost every country of the world. It asked them to campaign for a global ban on laser weapons and anti-personnel land mines, and to lobby their respective governments to attend and take seriously the U.N. review conference of the "Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects," better known as the U.N. Weapons Convention.
The convention came into force in 1983 and has been ratified by 41 countries, but not yet by the three Western permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, although President Clinton has promised to ask for U.S. ratification. This is the first opportunity -- and the last for at least 10 years -- to review its working.
It is clear that the convention has had little impact on restricting the spread of the deadly weapons it condemned in 1983 -- mines and napalm. Moreover, it stands in danger of being overtaken by the invention of these new laser weapons that can cause instant blindness. Lasers cannot be protected against, and for the damage they inflict there is no cure.
The Red Cross has its own internal reasons for deciding to lead the crusade against these new indiscriminate weapons, the mine and the laser. In its medical and relief work it sees, first-hand, how it is that the civilian populations are becoming increasingly the main casualty of modern warfare. "Civilian populations are becoming, with ever greater frequency, the hostages of warlords and the primary target of their opponents," observes Mr. Sommaruga.
The way the mine has gone in the last few years is the way the laser will probably go in the next few, argue Red Cross experts. The modern mine costs as little as $3 and by the year its design becomes both more potent and more undetectable. These days mines are made of lightweight plastic, easily carried, easily laid, in fact often just scattered like deadly seeds, yet able to explode with enough ferocity to tear the legs of an adult or smash a small child to smithereens.
In 1991 and 1992, 25 percent of all mine casualties in Afghanistan were children. Last year in Red Cross and Red Crescent African operations alone mines took the lives of 13 relief workers and injured another 11.
The Weapons Convention, although full of good intentions, has no enforcement powers. It has the added weakness of applying only to international armed conflicts. Yet most wars these days are civil. Next week, as its review conference starts in Geneva, is the week to start toughening it. It needs its writ widened. It needs legal teeth. And it certainly needs more than 41 countries to sign up.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.