WASHINGTON - The Obama administration announced yesterday that it would not be joining a treaty signed by 158 other countries to ban landmines. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the decision "lacks vision, compassion, and basic common sense."
The group was also stunned by the manner in which the decision was apparently made and subsequently announced.
Although anti-landmine activists and congressional leaders had been urging the administration to begin reviewing the treaty for months, Obama administration officials never indicated that it had even started the process.
HRW said the review must have been done without consulting experts outside the administration, organizations working on the issue, or lawmakers that have been dealing with landmine concerns for years, like Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.
Foreign allies were apparently not consulted either, the group noted, adding that the 1997 treaty has already been endorsed by nearly every U.S. military ally.
"The Obama administration's decision to continue the Bush administration's policy of refusing to join the international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines is a reprehensible rejection of the most successful disarmament and humanitarian treaty of the past decade," HRW said.
Report: Treaty Is Saving Lives
The Obama administration announcement came just days after a new report was released demonstrating that the use, production, and trade of antipersonnel mines have dramatically reduced since the treaty entered into force 10 years ago, saving potentially millions of lives.
A significant amount of land has been cleared of mines during that period, and new casualties each year are declining, said the "Landmine Monitor Report" for 2009 produced by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a coalition of organizations working on the issue worldwide.
More than 2 million antipersonnel mines and a quarter million antivehicle mines have been safely removed from over 90 countries and territories since 1999. An area twice the size of London has been cleared over that time, with last year's operations freeing more land of dangerous unexploded munitions than ever before.
While about 26,000 people were killed or maimed by landmines each year in the 1990s, only 5,197 casualties were recorded last year.
Still, the human and economic costs of landmine use remain too high, say humanitarian workers.
"Landmines are found along roads, in fields and forests, beside power pylons, near wells and riverbanks, in homes and public buildings. As a result they can cause economic paralysis by restricting movement in what are usually agriculture-based economies," explains the U.S.-based nonprofit group Landmines Blow.
Without landmines, agricultural production could more than double in both Afghanistan and Cambodia, the group notes, adding that over one fourth of all the arable land in Libya remains unusable due to mines left behind from World War II.
Seventy countries still have areas in need of mine clearance, noted this month's ICBL report, and little progress has been made on providing aid to the survivors of landmine explosions.
Obama Administration to Attend Landmine Conference
Government ministers, heads of state, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and hundreds of other experts and survivors will be attending a conference in Cartagena, Colombia next week to discuss the impacts of the treaty and consider how to advance the cause of safety from unexploded munitions worldwide.
The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it would be sending officials to the treaty review conference, marking the first time the U.S. had ever officially participated in the treaty process. That announcement raised hopes within the human rights community that Obama's diplomats would finally begin the process to agree to the treaty.
"Engaging with its allies under the framework of the Mine Ban Treaty is a positive step, but the U.S. should not arrive empty-handed in Cartagena. The U.S. needs to come to the table expressing a sincere commitment to relinquish this weapon and join the treaty," HRW's Steve Goose said in a statement Monday, just 24 hours before the surprise announcement that a decision had indeed been made -- just not the one human rights advocates were hoping for.