A Treaty Under-mined?

Most of the world's countries have agreed to eliminate landmines. Guess who's holding out.

| Wed Dec. 1, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Five years ago, the majority of the world’s nations agreed to put an end to the use of landmines, signing the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. Since then, millions of landmines have been destroyed, and 144 nations have ratified the treaty, with more in the process. However, in what’s become a recurring theme, one signature noticeably absent from this international treaty is that of the United States.

This week in Nairobi, nations are marking the treaty’s five-year anniversary with an international land mine conference, looking at the ban’s successes and its future. The former, highlighted in the 1,300-page Landmine Monitor report, include:

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Of the more than 50 states known to have produced antipersonnel mines, 36 states have formally renounced and ceased production.

A de facto global ban on the transfer or export of antipersonnel mines has been in effect since 1996. The trade in antipersonnel mines has dwindled to a very low level of illicit trafficking and unacknowledged trade.

In this Landmine Monitor reporting period, some four million stockpiled antipersonnel mines were destroyed, bringing the global total to about 62 million antipersonnel mines destroyed in recent years. Sixty-five States Parties have completed the destruction of their stockpiles, collectively destroying more than 37.3 million antipersonnel mines.

Under the treaty’s terms, countries must destroy all their anti-personnel mines within four years of ratification, and clear all minefields within a decade. The study shows progress on that front, and nations becoming party to the treaty this year include Ethiopia and the landmine-ravaged states of Burundi and Sudan. However, as Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki said Monday, there is ample work left:

"It is estimated that there are still close to 200 million mines held by various states. I appeal to those states that are still not parties to join the convention and to destroy those landmine stockpiles."

Roughly forty countries fit that category, with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia joining the United States among the holdouts. According to a government statement, the U.S. supports the ban in principle, but refuses to sign the treaty unless an exception is made for its mines on the Korean peninsula. While President Clinton had asked the Defense Department to look into alternatives to mines, the Bush administration argues it simply doesn’t have a ready replacement for the weapons in Korea.

At the Nairobi conference, which the U.S. declined to attend, its position drew this response from Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch:

"The other countries (that) have done away with land mines have found that, through a combination of using other types of weapons, other types of censors, and changes in their doctrine and in their tactics, and in the way they arrange their forces, they can do away with anti-personnel land mines and not have a significant impact on their military operations. If all these other governments can do it, so can the U.S…

"There are states who like to maintain that they won't join the convention until the U.S. joins. So it's hurting our efforts to further universalize, to bring the rest of the world on board."

Last February, the U.S. government instead proposed the development of so-called "smart mines" that would be timed to self-destruct and would, in theory, limit the number of civilian casualties (estimates put such casualties worldwide between 10,000-20,000 each year). At the time, Sen. Patrick Leahy called the plan a "deeply disturbing rollback" that would only encourage other nations to develop and use mines.

To the government’s credit, the landmine treaty is not another Kyoto Protocol, as the U.S. is at least taking some small, independent steps to reduce its estimated 10 million mines. Unlike Russia, for example, the United States hasn’t deployed new mines since the first Gulf War. In a statement released this week, the military did commit to stop using anti-personnel mines by 2010, and to eliminate all but the controversial "smart" mines from its arsenal.

President Bush has also continued Clinton’s financial support for worldwide minefield cleanup, with roughly $1 billion contributed since 1993. To Ken Rutherford of Landmine Survivors Network, that’s only a partial victory until the U.S. ratifies the treaty:

"Shame on the United States for not signing, but congratulations for everything that you're doing to make the world more mine safe in terms of clearing the mines and helping land mine survivors recover from their accidents. And shame on those state parties that have signed the treaty but contribute zero to victim assistance or de-mining."

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