More than two-thirds of U.S. senators have signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to develop a plan to join a 17-year-old international treaty banning the production, transfer, and use of anti-personnel land mines.
The letter, which was sent to the White House Tuesday by its two main sponsors, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republican Sen. George Voinovich, expressed “strong support” for an ongoing administration review of the Mine Ban Convention that is expected to conclude before the fall.
“We are confident that through a thorough, deliberative review, the administration can identify any obstacles to joining the Convention and develop a plan to overcome them as soon as possible,” it said.
The fact that the letter gained a total of 68 signatories, including 10 Republicans, is particularly significant.
Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties must be signed by the president and ratified by two-thirds of the 100-member U.S. Senate. Thus, presuming that the signatories would vote to ratify the 1997 Ottawa Convention, as the treaty is known, Washington’s accession appears well within reach if Obama decides to sign it.
“More than two-thirds of the Senate and many in the House [of Representatives] have now told the president that the U.S. should join the Mine Ban Treaty, and that it can do so without endangering U.S. national security,” said Steve Goose, who directs the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a major campaigner for the accord.
The administration, which last November said “national defense” considerations prevented it from signing the Convention, promised to undertake a major review of the issue after key lawmakers, notably Leahy, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reacted with outrage.
While the U.S. last used land mines during the 1991 Gulf War and stopped producing them altogether six years later, some officials, notably in the Pentagon, have long been leery of giving up the weapon as required by the treaty’s terms. Indeed, the U.S. has stockpiled land mines in South Korea – which were recently transferred to Seoul’s control – for possible deployment against a North Korean attack.
The treaty has been signed by 158 countries, including all of Washington’s NATO allies and virtually all of Latin America and Africa. Notable exceptions, however, include China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and both Koreas.
Like most of the 36 other countries that have not joined the treaty, however, Washington – even under the administration of President George W. Bush – has tried to comply with its main provisions, which include ending land mine production, transfers, and deployment and eliminating stockpiles.
The U.S. has also been single biggest funder of mine clearance and victims’ assistance initiatives, having contributed about $1.5 billion to those efforts since 1993.
The treaty, which was opened for signature in 1997, took effect only two years later due to a high-powered campaign led by Canada and Western European governments, as well as hundreds of independent human rights and disarmament groups that make up the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL). The ICBL, which has since initiated a similar campaign for an international ban on cluster munitions, won the Nobel Peace Prize for its lobbying efforts in 1997 in recognition of its leadership role.
In its latest annual report, the Coalition reported that land mines killed or wounded more than 5,000 people – the vast majority of whom were civilians – in a total of 75 countries in 2008.
A mine accident that blew off the leg of an 11-year-old child on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in February has recently opened a major debate in Israel’s parliament over whether to begin removing some 260,000 land mines along its borders.
Last November, the Obama administration sent a U.S. delegation for the first time the Convention’s review conference in Cartagena, Colombia. At the same time, however, it also announced that it had decided against signing the treaty due to concerns about its impact on “national defense needs [and] our security commitments to our friends and allies.”
The latter announcement provoked a storm of protest among the treaty’s supporters in Congress and the activist community, many of whom were already voicing growing dismay at the degree of continuity between the policies of the new president and those of his predecessor.
The reaction was so fierce that, within 24 hours, the administration said it would launch a “comprehensive review” of its land-mine policy.
The review, which is being overseen by the National Security Council (NSC), has reportedly involved a number of different agencies, as well as outside experts, including humanitarian agencies and allies that have implemented the treaty.
Participants within the administration have so far included mainly mid-level and some more senior officials. Cabinet members, such as Pentagon chief Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or their deputies have not yet been officially convened to voice their views and decide what Washington will do.
Both Pentagon and State Department officials involved in the review have offered a range of positions, according to knowledgeable sources, with a possible consensus emerging around stepped-up efforts to come into full compliance with the treaty’s terms and setting a deadline for formal accession, which would require Senate ratification.
That would at least return the U.S. position to close to that taken under President Bill Clinton who, while declining to sign the treaty in 1997, set 2006 as the goal for full compliance. Bush later renounced that goal, pledging instead use only so-called “smart mines” that would self-destruct after a limited time so as to reduce the longer-term risk of civilian casualties.
Campaigners were heartened last week when the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, was asked about his views on both land mines and cluster munitions.
“In growing parts of the world,” he said, “[they] are becoming activities that we don’t want to participate in. They may be effective as lethal agents, but they … have a social and cultural bias against them for good reasons.”
“[W]e tended to live for several years in a mindset of ‘This is war.’ The reality is, we’re back to Clausewitz, it is about the politics. It is about the people,” he said.
In the letter to Obama, the senators echoed that theme, noting that “anti-personnel mines pose grave dangers to civilians, and that avoiding civilian casualties and the anger and resentment that result has become a key priority in building public support for our mission in Afghanistan.”
“The idea that a modern military like ours would be using indiscriminate, victim-activated weapons today is hard to reconcile with our current military objectives, particularly when you consider that the two countries [Iraq and Afghanistan] where our troops are fighting are parties to the treaty and the members of the coalition that we are leading in Afghanistan are also parties to the treaty,” said Leahy, who plans to give a press conference on the issue Tuesday.
According to a Leahy aide, “Sen. Leahy believes the administration is doing the kind of review he asked them to do and that they can come up with a plan to join the treaty through this process.”
(Inter Press Service)