U.S. Should Join Effort to Ban 'Hidden Killers'
U.S. Should Join Effort to Ban 'Hidden Killers'
Hold Your Fire! (Season 4)
Hold Your Fire! (Season 4)
Op-Ed / Global 3 minutes

U.S. Should Join Effort to Ban 'Hidden Killers'

A decade ago, the Ottawa treaty to ban land mines went into force. Yet today these "hidden killers" continue to exact a terrible toll among the world's most innocent.

In Angola, one of the first songs a child learns in school is about land mines. It warns that the ground is an angry place with beasts that pop up and bite off your leg unless you're careful. The song is part of a land mine avoidance campaign that has likely saved lives and limbs of many young children - but consider the devastating psychological impact of having kids view the earth itself as a source of danger and fear.

Similarly, children in such varied locales as Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Iraq, Kosovo, Laos, Lebanon, Montenegro, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are now taught not to touch the shiny metal balls and brightly painted cans scattered in their fields, remnants of cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance from past or current conflicts.

There are strong similarities between land mines and cluster munitions. Both are man-made humanitarian disasters that threaten post-conflict societies trying to rebuild. They are anonymous weapons, killing or maiming civilians as a result of soldiers planting them in the soil or dropping them from the sky, often years before. They are inefficient, imprecise weapons generally shunned in modern warfare; the U.S. military hasn't deployed land mines since 1992, nor cluster munitions since 2003. Still, some 70 countries around the world are impacted by these killers.

Fortunately, both land mines and cluster munitions are now themselves targeted for extinction. Following lengthy global negotiations, there are treaties to prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of these weapons. The goals of the Ottawa Treaty on land mines (1997) and Oslo Treaty on cluster munitions (2008) are realistic and achievable. Signing nations commit to clear affected areas; declare their stockpiles and destroy them within reasonable time limits; assist poorer countries with clearance efforts; and support accident survivors.

Regrettably, the U.S. remains a conspicuous holdout to both treaties. It's the only NATO country and, besides Cuba, the only Western Hemisphere country not to sign the land mine treaty. A majority of countries signed the cluster munitions treaty within days of its opening for signature last December.

As former presidential representatives for humanitarian demining, we see no compelling reasons for the U.S. not to sign these treaties now. President Bill Clinton held back from the Ottawa Treaty because of overstated concerns over the potential impact of the treaty on the defense of South Korea and the use of anti-tank munitions. But he launched a major effort to find alternatives to land mines and committed to sign the treaty by 2006 if successful. Indeed, ongoing research has yielded promising results. Substitute weapons systems that would comply with the Ottawa treaty are now at hand.

Mr. Clinton also directed massive new assistance for mine clearance, accident survivors, new demining technologies, and avoidance education - making the U.S. by far the largest contributor to these efforts.

The Bush administration maintained these assistance programs but quickly pulled back from Clinton's land mine policy, arguing that land mines have a "military utility" and that our land mines - designed to deactivate or self-destruct after a given period - aren't the problem. It claimed that cluster munitions pose only an "episodic" and "manageable" threat to civilians.

These arguments are unconvincing. The world long ago recognized that humanitarian concerns can trump military utility, as in the banning of mustard gas and other chemical/biological weapons. It's time to change U.S. policy.

We believe President Barack Obama should sign these treaties and submit them to Congress for ratification. But we recognize that the new president has many urgent issues on his plate and does not need a contentious fight with the skeptics, including some in the Pentagon. A reasonable approach would be to launch a commission to consider U.S. adherence to these two treaties, charged with reviewing the broad diplomatic, humanitarian and military dimensions, and making a recommendation by the end of this year. The nonpartisan commission could be co-chaired by former national security advisers from Republican and Democratic administrations - such as Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Lake - and include former members of Congress, retired military officers, former officials of USAID, and civil society leaders.

We believe this review will show the weapons should be shelved for all time. It will take some changes in military doctrine and practice, but the benefits will be manifold. Chief among them is the powerful signal it will send to the world of the new president's commitment to re-engage with the international community to address global problems. Equally important, it will help permit future generations to walk the earth without fear.


Former Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs
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Karl F. Inderfurth
Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University; Special Representative to the Secretary of State for Global Humanitarian Demining 1997-98

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