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U.S. Still Delinquent on Landmine Treaty

César Chelala

"I heard a thundering sound and saw darkness all around me. I spent three months in the hospital -- and lost my leg and my son. I had stepped on a landmine and the world as I knew it had come to a halting end," wrote Monica Piloya, chairperson of the Gulu/Amuru Landmine Survivors' Network in northern Uganda. She is one of the thousands of women who have been maimed by landmines.

On November 30, 2010, fifteen Nobel Peace Prize recipients sent a letter to President Barak Obama urging him to join the ban on antipersonnel landmines. The U.S. is still one of 39 states that remain outside the treaty. The Tenth Meeting of the States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 30 to December 3, 2010. The U.S. is attending as an observer delegation.

Mrs. Piloya's ordeal didn't end with those losses. "I returned to live with my husband, but everything had changed. He verbally abused me, telling me I was useless, helpless. My in-laws told him, 'Monica is disabled; get another woman.' After a year, my husband left. I was four months pregnant at the time and struggling to care for my older child as well."

Traumatic as her losses had been, however, Mrs. Piloya was able to overcome her difficulties. Slowly, she rebuilt her life. She started selling fish in the local market, which covers hers and her child's expenses and has become the leader of a landmine survivor organization in northern Uganda.

Not all landmine victims, however, are able to reorient their lives. For those who are not killed, the disabilities left as sequelae of the landmine explosion are difficult to overcome and leave permanent scars in their lives, particularly in the case of children. UNICEF estimates that 30 - 40 percent of mine victims are children under 15 years old.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) estimates that 15,000-20,000 people are injured or killed by landmines every year, and that millions more suffer from the economic, physical and psychological consequences of the weapon. The U.S. State Department estimates that fewer than one in four landmine amputees is fitted with an adequate prosthesis.

There are presently millions of landmines and other unexploded ordnance in the ground in more than 80 countries. From 1969 to 1992 the U.S. has exported an estimated 4.4 million antipersonnel mines to countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Somalia, and Vietnam.

The U.S. military has not been immune to the dangers of landmines. These weapons have killed thousands of U.S. and allied troops in every U.S.-fought conflict since World War II, including hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to civilian and soldiers from those countries. In the 1991 Gulf War, landmines caused 34% of U.S. casualties. In spite of that, the U.S. is one of only about 14 countries that refuses to agree that it will never again produce the weapon.

The arguments in favor of the usefulness of landmines use are not valid. In 1996, an International Committee of the Red Cross study, "Antipersonnel Landmines -- Friend or Foe?" concluded that they are not indispensable weapons, and that they do not necessarily offer a military advantage.

In addition, because they are indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, their use goes against international humanitarian law. Among the provisions of the Additional Protocol I (1977) to the Geneva Conventions, there are rules that seek to protect civilians by limiting the "means and methods of warfare." Although the Additional Protocol I does not deal with specific weapons, it provides a general framework of rules applicable in international armed conflicts.

In 2009, Ian Kelley, State Department spokesman, declared that the U.S. wouldn't join its NATO allies and many other countries in formally banning landmines. By insisting on this policy, the U.S. is complicit in the unnecessary suffering and maiming of thousands of civilians worldwide.

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Dr. César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.

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