United States’ shameful land mine policy


Last Tuesday, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly revealed that President Obama would follow in President George W. Bush’s footsteps and not sign the international Mine Ban Treaty. Many of us had hoped he would embrace President Clinton’s pledge that the U.S. would join.

The 1997 treaty was a landmark accomplishment. For the first time in history, a group of governments and civil institutions joined together to ban a conventional weapon that had been used by virtually every fighting force in the world for decades.

Today, 156 nations are party to the treaty -- including Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all of Europe except Finland (Poland has signed but not yet ratified), all of sub-Saharan Africa except Somalia, almost half of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (including Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Algeria), and the entire Western Hemisphere, except for the United States and Cuba.


Kelly’s startling revelation came during a briefing in advance of this week’s treaty review conference in Cartagena, Colombia. As he explained: “This administration undertook a policy review, and we decided our land mine policy remains in effect.”

A leader of my organization, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, called another State Department official after the disclosure looking for more information. Could it really be true that the U.S. would remain outside one of the most inclusive and comprehensive treaties put together in the last 50 years? The official confirmed that the review was over and that the Bush policy would prevail.

The next day, after an immediate firestorm of protest, Kelly backtracked, saying a review was “still underway.” This weak attempt at damage control is hardly credible and has been discounted even by land-mine-ban champion Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) The best hope now is that the outcry is loud enough that the administration will credibly revisit the issue and conduct an open and meaningful review of existing policy. But the possibility of policy change remains highly uncertain.

So why won’t the U.S. be joining so many of its allies in renouncing land mines? “We . . . determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention,” Kelly said in the briefing.

This is absurd. And given the closed, hush-hush nature of a review excluding almost everyone involved in the land mine issue, the real reasons remain unclear. Surely the administration has no intention of defending the homeland with antipersonnel land mines? All of its major allies -- including the 27 other members of NATO -- have signed the treaty. It remains unclear, then, which commitments to which friends and allies Kelly refers to.

Perhaps South Korea? The Clinton argument for not signing the treaty immediately was that land mines are heavily used in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. As we pointed out then, however, and as remains true now, land mines are not effective weapons of deterrence, particularly in the case of an outright attack on South Korea by the North. Even if they were, the land mines in the DMZ are South Korean, not American, and therefore would be unaffected by Obama’s joining the Mine Ban Treaty.


Obama’s position on land mines calls into question his expressed views on multilateralism, respect for international humanitarian law and disarmament. How can he, with total credibility, lead the world to nuclear disarmament when his own country won’t give up even land mines?

When a colleague called after Kelly’s briefing to give me the news about the continuation of our shameful land mine policy, half of me couldn’t believe it -- but the other half wasn’t surprised at all.

I voted for Obama. I wanted to believe that his soaring rhetoric might actually be turned into a revival for the U.S. on issues of multilateralism, international humanitarian law and, of course, human rights. But at the moment, I’m quite disillusioned.

This administration has seemed all too willing to put aside human rights in the service of political expediency. Its response to Iran’s postelection crackdown on nonviolent protest was wishy-washy; its response to the illegal Honduran coup has been weak, ineffective and completely disregarded a huge spike in human rights violations there. Then there was Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama to avoid upsetting Chinese leaders before his recent visit there.

If human rights are of so little importance to the president and his administration, why would they worry about international humanitarian law? Is that the unspoken reasoning behind land mine policy? Or is it reluctance to ruffle military feathers as Obama today announces what is expected to be a huge increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

A shrinking number of countries -- including China, Russia, India and Pakistan -- have not joined the Mine Ban Treaty. When will the U.S. join the rest of the world in banning these insidious weapons of terror that have caused so much heartbreak and devastation?


Jody Williams was the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for which she was awarded, along with the organization, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.