Washington Drops Bomb on Landmine Ban

Groups that have fought for the elimination of anti-personnel landmines worldwide lashed out Friday at the U.S. decision to not sign the global Landmine Ban Treaty. They warned that Washington’s snub could embolden nations already employing or considering use of the weapons.

The United States has not used these weapons – which have killed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people around the world each year – since 1991, and has not produced them since 1997. In September, anti-mine groups, which played a huge role in creating the treaty, predicted the United States would sign on to the convention by 2006.

But on Friday the administration of President George W. Bush said it would not sign the treaty, that it would push back the date to eliminate some mines to 2010, and would retain the right to use other "smart" mines indefinitely. But Washington also promised to boost funding for global anti-mine activities for 2005 by 50 percent over 2003 levels.

Since 1997, some 150 countries have signed the Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the use, trade, production and stockpiling of antipersonnel landmines.

Washington’s mine policy has been under review since 2001 but Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, in 1998 directed that the US military must search for alternatives to the weapon, phase out most of its use outside of the Koreas by 2003, and that the government would join the treaty by 2006.

On Friday, Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield rejected the convention, adding that landmines with timing devices are relatively safe and "have some continuing utility for our armed forces around the world," reported the Associated Press.

Those so-called "smart mines" are programmed to self-destruct after a certain period, unlike conventional ("persistent") landmines. The United States will begin destroying its persistent mines in 2006 with a goal to eliminate them by 2010, Bloomfield added, but will retain "smart" mines on the Korean peninsula.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) called that the most "objectionable" aspect of the new policy. It means US military forces are now free to use smart mines anywhere in the world, indefinitely, said Stephen Goose, executive director of HRW’s arms division.

"So-called smart mines are not safe mines – they still pose real dangers for civilians," added Goose.

"The United States stands alone in this position that there can be a technological solution to the global landmine problem," he said in a statement.

According to the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, smart mines are particularly dangerous for a number of reasons, including that they might fail to self-destruct, and they are "planted" by air in the thousands so it is difficult to map their locations.

"(Another) problem with these mines is that they are not smart enough to tell the difference between a child and a soldier," USCBL Coordinator Gina Coplon-Newfield told IPS.

She said although the United States had not planted mines since 1991, "we do know that the US military took with them to the Gulf region about one and a half years ago tens of thousands of antipersonnel landmines for possible use."

"We’re very glad that reportedly they haven’t used them thus far, but especially with this new announcement we’re very concerned about the possibility of future use," added Coplon-Newfield.

HRW’s Mary Wareham said the announcement was a shock, given that although the United States had not signed the treaty, "in our minds (Washington) was doing all the right things."

But Friday’s decision now means "they’re going to keep mines indefinitely instead of working toward their elimination," she added in an interview.

It sets a bad example for the 40-odd nations that have not signed the treaty, said Wareham. "It’s very difficult to influence them but one country can, and that’s the United States."

According to Coplon-Newfield, "many countries may say ‘if the wealthiest military in the world wants to reserve the right to use this weapon then surely we, a poor military, should be able to reserve the right.’"

Last September, anti-mine groups reported that in 2002, the use of landmines plummeted worldwide, that 12 countries had signed the Mine Ban Treaty during the year and 10 others had ratified it, meaning their national legislatures had approved it.

They said that only the governments of Burma and Russia continued to plant mines on a regular basis and that even rebel groups around the world were using fewer mines.

At the time, Campaign to Ban Landmines founder Jodie Williams speculated the United States was hesitating to join the treaty because its defense department feared the precedent of civil society forcing it to abandon one type of weapon might "snowball."

On Friday she told AP Radio that the announcement "is yet another indication of the Bush administration’s total disdain for international law."

Read more by Marty Logan