UNITED NATIONS - In 1994, the United States was the first nation to call for the elimination of landmines that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent people around the world.
But that was then. Today, Washington not only stands in opposition to an international treaty that bans the use and production of antipersonnel landmines, but intends to make new ones too.
In reversal of its earlier policy, the U.S. is reportedly planning to produce a new generation of landmines called "Spider" by March 2007, a move that has alarmed civil society groups campaigning for a global ban on the use and production of landmines for years.
Spider is an advanced, man-in-the-loop, area denial munition. It will protect the warfighter by laying down either a lethal or non-lethal field of fire yet puts complete command and control in the hands of the soldier. Spider offers remotely controlled force protection while enhancing the operational and tactical flexibility of forces in the field.
Spider is being developed by ATK with its joint venture partner Textron.
"We are concerned about this," says Alison Bock, president and founder of Landmines Blow!, a U.S.-based independent group. "This would erase many of the positive steps the U.S. has taken in the past."
Landmines Blow! has joined a number of other groups in urging the Bush administration to drop its plans for Spider production and instead support the goals of the Mine Ban Treaty.
The 1997 treaty, which has been endorsed by nearly 150 countries, calls for a ban on the production, stockpiling, and use of antipersonnel landmines.
Major powers among the 40 nations who have not signed the treaty are the United States, Russia, and China.
Last month, more than 100 countries sent delegates to an international meeting on landmines in Croatia, but the United States did not.
Bock thinks it was wrong on part of the United states to stay away from the meeting. "We believe the U.S. should engage in global discussions on the landmine issue."
Ironically, the United States was at the forefront of international efforts to adopt the landmine treaty in the 1990s. It had not used antipersonnel landmines since the 1991
Gulf War and had not exported them to other countries since 1992.
The United States would "seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of antipersonnel mines," President
Bill Clinton said at the start of his second term in the White House.
But the Bush administration reversed that promise last February with the Department of State declaring that landmines still have "a valid and essential role" in protecting U.S. forces in military operations.
"No other weapon currently exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines," the official statement added.
Disappointed with the administration's stance, supporters of the treaty fear that the new policy on landmines might set a bad precedent for other nations who are still outside the fold of the treaty.
"It's a step backward for the United States," says Stephen Goose, an arms expert with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
"While the rest of the world is rushing to embrace an immediate and comprehensive ban, the Bush administration has decided to cling to the weapons in perpetuity," he adds.
Goose and others note that the administration often does not use the word landmines while referring to new weapons, such as Spiders, which are designed to blow up automatically after a certain period of time.
"These are not safe mines," Goose contends. "They still pose real dangers for civilians."
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are killed or maimed by mines each year--most civilians and most in countries now at peace--according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), an independent umbrella organization.
Landmines are especially heinous weapons of war, the group says, because they are indiscriminate--unable to distinguish between soldiers, civilians, peacekeepers, aid workers, or others--and inhumane--designed to maim rather than kill but frequently killing nonetheless.
The also deprive people of land and infrastructure in some of the poorest countries in the world, hamper reconstruction and the delivery of aid, deprive communities and families of breadwinners, and kill livestock and wild animals, according to the group.
ICBL released a report last week suggesting that despite the fact that "immense challenges" remained to be dealt with, the worldwide use of landmines and the number of related casualties were going down.
Last month, in a report on landmines, the group, however, suggested that some positive changes must still be forthcoming.
"Although we are making great strides in our work to rid the world of this weapon, we need to do more," says ICBL leader Jody Williams, who won the Noble Peace Prize for her work in 1997.
That's exactly what's on the minds of anti-mines activists like Bock and Goose, who believe that the world cannot achieve much unless the United States decides to reverse its policy.
Many groups are now reaching out to U.S. lawmakers in an attempt to prevent the administration from pursuing its retrogressive policy on landmines. It appears they have succeeded in gaining support from some of them.
"I believe that more can and must be done to stop this crisis," Senator Barack Obama, (D-IL) told Bock in a letter, while assuring his support in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I will be working with my colleagues in Congress and with the Bush administration on this issue."
Whether lawmakers like Obama will succeed in their efforts remains to be seen.
© 2005 OneWorld.net