Groups Denounce Obama Rejection of Landmine Treaty

Human rights and disarmament activists reacted bitterly Wednesday to the decision by the administration of President Barack Obama, who will receive the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize next month, not to sign the 10-year-old treaty banning anti-personnel landmines.

The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL), a coalition of scores of activist groups, called the administration’s decision "shocking," while Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the Campaign’s most influential members, 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 the decision, which was announced by State Department spokesman Ian Kelly Tuesday.

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."

Rep. Jim McGovern, another leader of Congressional disarmament efforts, called the review and the decision "a major insult to the international community that unfortunately far overshadows our contributions in the areas of de-mining and support for landmine survivors."

The decision, which came on the eve of the Second Five-Year Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty to begin Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, was viewed 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.

The decision, however, is likely to add to growing frustration in recent months among Obama’s more-liberal political base over his willingness 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 strong embrace of counterinsurgency doctrine; 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 and that was explicitly rejected by Bush.

They also noted his decision, announced here 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."

Still, the announcement that the administration had completed its review and concluded 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" came as a harsh blow to those have been campaigning for it for years.

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 organizations 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 report, 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, said it was especially disappointed by the way the administration’s review of the treaty was carried out.

"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," said Zach Hudson, the group’s coordinator.

"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."

"It’s painful that President Obama has chosen to reject the Mine Ban Treaty just weeks before he joins the ranks of Nobel peace laureates, including the ICBL," Goose added.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.