Conflict & Justice

Will the US join other nations in banning land mines?

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Injuries and fatalities from landmine explosions globally have fallen since the creation of an international mine ban treaty in 1997, though 4,000 fatalities still occur annually. Here, de-mining efforts followed a landslide in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May.

Credit:

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Land mines are the soldiers that never withdraw, even when the wars they were deployed to fight are long over.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

For Jody Williams, banning land mines has been a personal crusade. So far, she’s convinced over 160 nations to join her cause and agree to stop using them.

In 1997, Williams helped fashion the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the production, use, sale and stockpiling of antipersonnel land mines. She was recognized for her activism with the Nobel Peace Prize, as was the organization she founded, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

But the United States has never signed the treaty — largely because it uses a large number of land mines in its defensive positions along the demilitarized zone in South Korea.

After a conference on the Ottawa Treaty in Maputo, Mozambique, last week, the Obama Administration announced it ultimately plans to accede to the treaty, and that it has banned all future land mine production. But activists like Williams say that’s not enough.

“It’s a good move, except they hadn’t been producing [landmines] since 1997,” she said. The US bowed out of the initial treaty negotiations in Oslo, but has largely been following the terms of the agreement ever since.

However, anti-landmine activists say a US signature on the treaty would still be a significant gesture to the international community. It would legitimize Obama’s public calls for multilateralism, and bolster his anti-nuclear stance, Williams argued.

“The fact that [the Obama Administration] won’t sign a treaty that they’ve been obeying for two decades indicates that all that multilateralism ‘stuff’ bears no weight in the administration,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

There are other holdouts besides the US, including Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, as well as North and South Korea, though China sent an observer delegation to the conference for the first time this year. China has also cut its landmine stockpile from an estimated 110 million when the treaty took effect in 1997 to 5 million today. The US stockpile stand at about 3 million.

“The stigmatization of the weapon has had a significant impact,” Williams said of China’s policy changes.

American defense officials have argued that antipersonnel land mines have an important strategic value, deterring an enemy infantry force from taking territory, for example. The treaty also does not consider that some of the more modern landmines can automatically deactivate after a certain amount of time. Most of the US landmines are self-deactivating.

“That’s part of the reason why the US walked out of the treaty negotiations in September of 1997. The rest of the world said no, we don’t accept a technological solution. We don’t believe there are technological solutions,” Williams said.

Some 4,000 fatalities occur from landmine explosions annually, a decrease of about 60 percent since 1999, when the treaty entered into force. The number of nations that have signed onto the treaty is now at 161, with Oman poised to become 162.

“The success of the mine ban treaty is important beyond itself,” Williams said. “It demonstrates that these [civil society-government partnership] models really work. It’s about more than the beautiful language of the treaty. It’s about the ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ of a movement that’s making sure the job gets done.”