THERE WAS AN EMPTY chair at the Geneva meeting this past week on implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The 138 signers of the Treaty were reviewing progress made in removing mines, treating victims, and destroying stockpiles of a weapon that maims or murders 22,000 people a year.
The empty chair was a symbolic invitation to governments that have not yet signed the treaty. Among these are Iraq, North Korea, Libya, China, and Russia. Sad to say, that empty chair in Geneva also beckons the United States.
The refusal of America to sign the Mine Ban Treaty represents a particularly embarrassing contradiction, since President Clinton, during a 1994 speech to the UN General Assembly, became the first leader of a major power to demand elimination of all antipersonnel land mines. In 1996, Clinton pledged in public that the United States would spearhead an international campaign to rid the world of antipersonnel land mines. And the Clinton administration has led the way in contributing money for the clearing of mines from sites of conflict and for the medical treatment of surviving land mine victims.
Retired military commanders such as General Norman Schwarzkopf have come out in favor of signing the Mine Ban Treaty not merely because of a universal moral imperative to protect innocent farmers and children in war-blasted lands such as Cambodia, Mozambique, or Afghanistan, but because during the Vietnam War and recent peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, about a third of casualties suffered by American troops were caused by land mines and booby traps.
In 1997, this page accepted the Pentagon's argument that land mines were still needed to defend the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. At the time, we noted that the land mines planted along the DMZ ''are all defensive, are not indiscriminately sown, nor are they blowing up civilians.''
That position is less defensible today because of the dramatic recent thaw in relations between a famine-wracked North Korea and a democratic South Korea. Also, the military utility of land mines on the DMZ has become more dubious than ever. If North Korea ever took the suicidal decision to invade the South, it could use explosive hoses and aerosol defusing sprays to render land mines a mere nuisance. The North Koreans are also capable of tunneling under the mine fields or parachuting over them.
The time has come for America to assume its rightful place as leader in the campaign to ban completely a weapon as inhumane as viruses or chemical gases.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company