WASHINGTON - One day after the State Department announced that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama will not sign the 10-year-old treaty banning anti- personnel landmines, it insisted that Washington's policy on the issue was still being reviewed.
Human rights and disarmament activists had reacted with outrage Wednesday to Tuesday's announcement by State Department spokesman Ian Kelly that the review had concluded and that Washington "would not be able to meet our national defense needs, nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign the [landmine] convention".
"The administration is committed to a comprehensive review of its landmine policy," Kelly said in a written statement issued by the State Department press office Wednesday afternoon. "That review is still ongoing."
The statement did not make clear whether Tuesday's announcement had been made in error or whether the anger provoked by it had persuaded the administration to reconsider. The fact that Kelly was reading from guidance prepared in advance and presumably cleared at higher levels, however, suggested that the latter explanation was more likely.
The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL), a coalition of scores of activist groups, had called the Tuesday's announcement "shocking", while Human Rights Watch (HRW) described it as "reprehensible".
"President Obama's decision to cling to anti-personnel mines keeps the U.S. on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity," said Steve Goose, the director of HRW's Arms Division, who also noted that Washington stood alone among its NATO allies in refusing to sign the treaty.
"This decision lacks vision, compassion, and basic common sense, and contradicts the Obama administration's professed emphasis on multilateralism, disarmament, and humanitarian affairs," he added.
A leading Democratic lawmaker, who spearheaded the drive in the early 1990s to ban Washington's export of the weapon to other countries, also decried Tuesday's announcement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said the decision constituted a "default of U.S. leadership" and charged that it appeared to be based on a review that "can only be described as cursory and half-hearted".
Tuesday's announcement, which came on the eve of the Second Five-Year Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty to begin Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, was seen as a victory for the Pentagon, which has long opposed the treaty, and Republicans wary of all international treaties that may limit Washington's freedom to act in the world as it wishes.
"I think what you see is an administration that is genuinely committed to multilateralism and renewing international cooperation coming up against the hard limits of domestic politics and realities," said Heather Hurlburt, director of the Washington-based National Security Network, before the State Department denied that the review had been completed.
The storm touched off by Tuesday's announcement reflected in part the growing frustration among Obama's more-liberal political base over his reluctance to break more definitively with the unilateralist and militarist policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
That frustration has been fueled, among other things, by his retention of many of the legally questionable tactics, such as indefinite detentions of terror suspects and their rendition to third countries, in what Bush called the "global war on terror"; by his failure to engage diplomatically more quickly with Bush nemeses, such as Cuba, Syria, and Iran; and his escalation of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Obama's defenders insist that his administration has been steadily moving the ship of state in a more multilateralist and diplomatic direction.
They cite, for example, his decision to send for the first time a U.S. observer delegation to take part in the Cartagena talks next week, just as he sent a similar delegation this week to attend a meeting at The Hague of the state parties to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) and that was explicitly rejected by Bush.
They also note his decision, announced earlier Wednesday, to lead the U.S. delegation at the U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen next month.
"I think they are moving away from the Bush administration, and the fact they're showing up at these [states] parties conventions is very significant," said Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions here.
He noted that the administration has sent the Senate a list of priority treaties for ratification, including the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and is currently trying to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia as part of a strategy to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
"It's more a question of timing than commitment," said Kraus. "There's limited bandwidth in terms of what the administration and the Senate can do at any one time."
The U.S. is currently one of only 39 countries that have not signed the treaty, which was opened for signing in 1997 and took effect in 1999 after a campaign led by Canada and Western Europe, as well as hundreds of independent human rights and disarmament organisations that make up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL won the Nobel Prize for its efforts in 1997 in recognition of its leadership role in the effort.
In its most recent accounting, the ICBL, which has since undertaken an initiative for an international ban on cluster munitions, reported that mines remain planted in more than 70 countries where they killed or wounded more than 5,000 people - the vast majority of whom were civilians - last year.
Ironically, the U.S. has been in substantial compliance with most of the treaty's provisions. It has not deployed anti-personnel mines since 1991, banned their export in 1992, and stopped manufacturing them in 1997. Washington has also spent some 1.5 billion dollars in de-mining and related activities since 1993, Kelly noted Tuesday.
Like Leahy, the USCBL, which is part of the ICBL, questioned the thoroughness and integrity of the review on which the State Department based its announcement Tuesday.
"While we were told to expect a landmine policy review..., we were taken by surprise that it had already been concluded behind closed doors without the consultation of non-governmental aid workers, legislators, and important U.S. NATO allies who are all States Parties to the treaty," Zach Hudson, the group's coordinator, said Wednesday morning before the State Department changed its position.
"We also have been offered no official reasons as to why the U.S. would continue on this present course - other than that nothing has changed since Bush reviewed the policy in 2004," he added. "President Obama should explain these actions to the international community, which held such high hopes for a different kind of U.S. engagement."
HRW's Goose also called the timing of Tuesday's announcement - two weeks before Obama is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo - "painful."
Rep. Jim McGovern, another leader of Congressional demilitarision efforts, called Tuesday's announcement and the review on which it was based "a major insult to the international community that unfortunately far overshadows our contributions in the areas of de-mining and support for landmine survivors".