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In Questionable Company

The initiative launched by Canada 11 months ago for a worldwide ban on the use, production, sale and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines has come to rapid fruition. Meeting in Oslo, more than 100 nations have endorsed a treaty that will come into force once the legislatures of 40 of them have ratified it. The United States is not among the treaty’s backers, even though the objectives of the accord have broad bipartisan support in Congress. This country instead finds itself in the company of, among others, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Libya, not the best of companions when moral issues are involved.

The effort to outlaw antipersonnel mines has been prompted by a compelling and enduring humanitarian need. Each year, 25,000 people are killed or maimed by explosions in the more than 60 countries where mines have been deployed during wars. Indeed, the civilian toll from mines--farmers and children are among the most frequent victims--far exceeds the casualties from mines suffered by troops in wartime.

The Clinton administration chose not to take part in the Canadian initiative until several weeks ago. That was a mistake, for by boycotting the negotiations it lost the chance to build its case over time for the several exceptions it wanted in the draft treaty. Foremost among these was the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which Washington wanted exempted from the land mine ban for a period of years. Korea’s topography, which imposes fairly narrow invasion routes from north to south, and Pyongyang’s unpredictable but historically aggressive nature provide, we think, sound justification for the exemption. Especially when the security of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there is at stake.

But the argument that prevailed in Oslo was that no exceptions should be allowed, lest a host of countries seek their own exemptions. So the United States will not, at least in the near future, become a signatory to the treaty. President Clinton says he remains committed to a global ban on antipersonnel mines, and this country is expected to continue supporting mine removal operations, on which it has spent $150 million since 1993. Given the number of mines extant--between 100 million and 300 million--that responsibility will be with us for a long time to come.

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