Published on Monday, October 21, 2002 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
U.S. Loses Moral Ground on Land Mine Ban
by Bob Keeler
Nearly five years after the ceremonial signing of an international treaty to ban land mines, these deadly seeds planted malevolently in the earth continue to bear bloody fruit around the world: severed limbs, broken lives, shattered families.
And still, the United States refuses to join 129 other nations that have already ratified the treaty. Once again, our government's ungovernable urge to go it alone casts the nation in the role of pariah.
Former President Bill Clinton deserves a major share of the blame, for failing to override the Pentagon's argument that the treaty would somehow endanger the defense of South Korea. But last year, eight senior retired U.S. commanders, including men who had led troops in Korea, wrote to President George W. Bush and argued that land mines were not needed in Korea. In fact, they'd slow the response by the United States and South Korea to any invasion from the North. (Right now both Koreas are removing land mines along the demilitarized zone that separates them.)
Before leaving office, Clinton did say that the United States would join the treaty by 2006, provided the nation can find "alternatives" to antipersonnel land mines. After Bush took office, his administration began a review of the policy. The Department of Defense has already recommended that the United States abandon any plans to join the treaty. The policy is still under study, but advocates for the treaty fear that Bush, the ultimate unilateralist cowboy, will reject even Clinton's feeble plan for America to do the right thing eventually.
The truth is that the protection of Korea is not the real reason for the Pentagon's intransigence. What the generals really fear is the precedent that joining the treaty would set: If a bunch of civilians can band together and force the Pentagon to abandon one of its weapons, then none of its weapons would be safe. So this is not about Korea at all. It's about generals protecting their toys from rampaging peacemakers.
That movement of non-governmental organizations to rid the planet of these hideous weapons started gathering in 1991. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines formally began in October 1992. Five years later, the campaign and its coordinator, Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In December 1997, just days before Williams accepted the prize, 122 nations signed the treaty in Ottawa. It took less than a year to gather the needed 40 ratifications to put the treaty in force. It became binding under international law in March 1999.
The treaty has produced some good news. Under its terms, nations have destroyed more than 34 million antipersonnel mines, including 7 million last year. Over the past decade, the treaty has led to the expenditure of $1.4 billion on such activities as mine clearance and survivor assistance. Most important of all, it has cut the number of new casualties from an estimated 26,000 a year to 15,000-20,000. Both the citizen movement and the treaty have worked.
Early on, Clinton spoke out in favor of the treaty. But the Pentagon didn't like it, and he caved. Since the treaty took effect, the United States has honored most of its requirements-without joining. Clearly, joining will not damage our nation's security, but refusal to join causes real damage to our image.
"The country has not exported land mines since 1992; has not used since the first Iraq war in 1991; has not produced since 1997; has destroyed several million mines from its stockpiles; and is one of the largest contributors in the world to mine action," Williams said. "It would seem a logical step to sign the treaty."
Despite the disturbing placement of mines by India and Pakistan recently, the trend is toward the elimination of these weapons, which keep producing death and serious injury long after a war ends.
"Even countries like China, which has not been pro-ban, have responded to the global sentiment against land mines," Williams said. "While it still retains them, it announced that it has stopped producing land mines for export - a very significant step forward, since China has been one of the biggest producers and exporters of land mines in the world."
The shame is that the United States, once a leader in this heartening effort to make the world safer, now stands on the sidelines, an outcast.
Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board and was a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Korea.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.