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
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
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.