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Clinton Says U.S. Won’t Join Treaty to Ban Land Mines

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton said Wednesday that the United States will refuse to join as many as 100 nations in a treaty banning antipersonnel land mines after an intense U.S. negotiating effort failed to win modifications to the pact.

The president told a news conference that the treaty changes sought by the United States were needed to protect American troops, particularly on the Korean peninsula.

“We went the extra mile and beyond to [try to] sign this treaty,” he said, ". . . but there is a line that I simply cannot cross, and that line is the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.”

Despite a vow by the president to seek alternatives to land mines and to take other steps curtailing U.S. reliance on the explosives, rejection of the treaty is something of a diplomatic setback for the Clinton administration. It means that the U.S. military will continue to use a type of weapon that most other countries, including its closest defense partners, have deemed illegal, in a category with poison gas and nerve agents.

Public support for a ban on land mines--which kill or injure about 25,000 people a year, mainly civilians--also has increased in part because of the death of Britain’s Princess Diana, who adopted the cause and visited land mine victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Angola.

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Representatives of about 100 countries meeting in Oslo gave preliminary approval to a draft treaty Wednesday after Eric Newsom, the chief U.S. negotiator, conceded that there was insufficient support for U.S.-backed amendments, despite a lobbying effort that included telephone conversations between Clinton and other world leaders.

The Oslo conferees are expected to give final approval to the treaty text today, and a signing ceremony is scheduled Dec. 2-4 in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, which is the treaty’s principal sponsor.

The agreement prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel land mines. Experts estimate that there are more than 100 million such mines scattered around the world, mainly the lethal leftovers of old wars and civil conflicts.

Under the terms negotiated in Oslo, the treaty will go into effect six months after 40 countries fully ratify the agreement, a process that diplomats expect to take about two years. Once the pact becomes effective, signatories will have four years to destroy their stockpiles of the weapons and 10 years to remove all the land mines planted within their borders. The secretary-general of the United Nations will have much of the responsibility for ensuring that countries comply with the treaty.

Most of the United States’ allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, have agreed to sign the pact, as have the majority of Latin American nations and most of those in Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition to the United States, those countries that have said they will not sign the treaty include China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and Iraq, all major users of land mines.

Analysts say that without a U.S. signature on the agreement, there’s little chance that treaty backers will be able to win over the other boycotting governments.

Although Clinton endorsed a worldwide land mine ban in 1994, the administration has favored a slower, more gradual process than the one led by Canada. The United States sought treaty changes in Oslo that opponents said would open up major loopholes in the document.

U.S. negotiators proposed an amendment delaying the treaty’s effective date by nine years in order, they said, to give the Defense Department time to develop alternatives to the use of land mines on the Korean peninsula. U.S. forces use land mines to protect Seoul, the South Korean capital, which is only about 30 miles from the border with Communist North Korea.

U.S. officials also wanted exemptions for an exclusive American weapon system that deploys anti-personnel mines attached to antitank mines. And they had sought a clause that would allow nations under attack to withdraw from the treaty with six months’ notice.

But there never was much support for the U.S. position among other countries, according to sources familiar with the talks. “They came in with demands at the last minute, many of which would have undermined the purpose of the treaty,” said one person close to the process.

The treaty agreement climaxes a six-year campaign by an international coalition of humanitarian agencies, veterans groups, church organizations and peace activists in favor of the ban. The effort received in October the important backing of the Canadian government, which agreed to sponsor negotiations and set a December 1997 deadline for completing a treaty.

Longtime campaigners for the ban hailed the treaty and criticized Clinton on Wednesday.

“The treaty will make a significant dent in the ongoing carnage caused by land mines,” said Michael Leaveck, associate director of the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, one of the earliest backers of the land mine prohibition. “But the U.S. absence will make it much more difficult to persuade those countries that continue to sell and use these weapons to join the treaty. It lessens the moral suasion.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a leader of the anti-mine forces on Capitol Hill, said he is determined to go ahead with legislation prohibiting new U.S. land mine emplacements effective Jan. 1, 2000.

Leahy’s measure has 60 co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate. A companion bill introduced last week in the House by Reps. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) and Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) now has 144 co-sponsors in the 435-seat body.

Earlier, Leahy told a Capitol Hill news conference that he believes Clinton is sincere in his objective of banning antipersonnel mines. But he said the administration’s approach is wrong.

“I am convinced that President Clinton wants to see these weapons banned,” he said. “But to sign the treaty would have required making a difficult decision which would have been unpopular with the Pentagon. The Pentagon is, understandably, deeply reluctant to give up a weapon that has some utility, even if doing so would help pressure others to end the suffering of innocent people. They make the same argument today as in the 1920s when they opposed a ban on poison gas.”

Indeed, the principal argument of those backing the Oslo treaty is that regardless of their effectiveness, mines have become too terrible a weapon to justify their use.

“What’s become more evident over the last year or so is that this is not a military weapon as much as a killer of civilians,” said Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian foreign minister, in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Axworthy said “it would have been a plus if the United States had come in. They bring in a certain moral weight.” He said he hopes Washington will join later.

Clinton was one of the first world leaders to endorse a worldwide land mine prohibition, but the United States has favored negotiating it through the notoriously slow-moving U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva rather than the Canadian-backed fast-track effort.

But the Canadian initiative “caught fire,” in the words of one U.S. diplomat, and collected the support of 100 countries in 11 months while the U.S.-backed plan failed even to get on the agenda in Geneva.

Clinton on Wednesday stressed the steps that the United States is taking unilaterally to reduce the danger of land mines, including the destruction by 1999 of its entire stockpile of 3 million of the most dangerous type--which can remain explosive for as long as it remains in the ground, sometimes long after the end of a war. The U.S. now deploys these mines only in South Korea; elsewhere, it uses so-called “smart mines” that automatically disarm themselves after a specified time period.

He also announced a project to develop alternatives to smart mines by 2003 as well as the planned elimination of land mines from South Korea by 2006. The administration additionally will seek a 25% increase in the $68-million-a-year program that funds mine removal in foreign countries.

At the Pentagon, a spokesman said the Defense Department has launched “an aggressive effort” to find an alternative to land mines.

“There is a study being done,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Patrick Sivigny said. “It will be presented to the secretary of Defense sometime in the future.” He declined to elaborate.

Kempster reported from Washington and Turner from the United Nations.


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