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POLITICS: U.S. Still Noncommittal on Landmine Treaty

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - As the 11th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty entering into effect came and went Monday, the United States remained one of only 37 countries to have yet to sign on to the agreement.

The U.S. does, however, comply with many of the provisions of the international treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and export of anti-personnel mines.

According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the U.S. has not used anti-personnel mines since 1991, has had an export ban in place since 1992 and has not produced them since 1997. It is also the world’s largest individual contributor for mine action and victim assistance programmes.

But advocacy groups say this is not enough.

“The last 11 years have shown that the Mine Ban Treaty is working,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Deadly antipersonnel mines are no longer viewed as a legitimate weapon of war, and it is time for the U.S. to recognise that reality with a decision to sign on to the treaty.”

The question now is why the U.S. has not signed on to a treaty it seems to support in deed, if not in word, and why, if the U.S.’s actions do for the most part line up with the treaty’s provisions, are advocacy groups so concerned with having the country’s name on the dotted line.

The answer to both questions seems to be spillover. If the U.S. were to join the international treaty, conservative U.S. policymakers fear, the action would cede some sovereignty to the international community, setting a precedent that may lead to further supranational oversight.

From the other angle, the NGOs pushing the U.S. to sign feel that if the U.S. were to join the treaty, other countries would be pushed to join as well – or at least no longer be able to point to the U.S.’s non-compliance as a justification for theirs.

“There are countries that won’t join the treaty because they can hide behind the U.S. and some of those counties that haven’t signed on. And some of these countries may be more likely to use landmines,” explains Zach Hudson, coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of individuals and groups.

The list of non-signatories includes Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Israel.

There are other reasons that groups like the USCBL are still pushing, a decade later, for the U.S. to officially come on board.

“The strongest reason is that, while they’re not being used, the U.S. currently maintains a stockpile of 10.4 million landmines,” says Hudson.

He wants to make sure that those mines are never used. Becoming a party to Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, would require destruction of stockpiles of anti-personnel mines within four years.

He says that it is also important for the U.S. to live up to its principles. He cited Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize speech in December, in which the president rejected the kind of “exceptionalism” that the President George W. Bush had employed to argue that the U.S. should not be constrained by the laws, treaties and other international conventions that bind other nations.

Signing onto the landmine treaty would be an “easy way to demonstrate that the U.S. is serious about becoming part of the international community,” Hudson says.

So why has it not? That’s the question his organisation would like to have an answer to, he says.

The misgivings of conservative policymakers and military heads regarding international treaties could be part of the answer.

“That’s probably one issue,” he says, “and that the Defence Department doesn’t like taking orders from the international community or civil society generally.”

In the late 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton used the landmine-studded Korean Demilitarised Zone to justify not signing on to the treaty when it was first opened for signature. He said this policy was likely to change at a future date once alternatives to antipersonnel mines became available. Clinton set a goal of joining by 2006.

But the George W. Bush administration then conducted a review of U.S. landmine policy which resulted, in February 2004, in what USCBL calls “a major rollback of U.S. progress on the issue.”

“If the U.S. has not used landmines in 19 years, then there are clearly other alternatives,” contends Hudson, and past arguments that landmines are necessary for military operations no longer hold water.

Goose likewise contends it will not “tie the hands of the U.S. military. Some ask how the U.S. can join when it is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but both those nations are members of the treaty and are already obliged to reject any use of antipersonnel mines.”

Ultimately, he and other activists would like the Obama administration to conclude that there is no reason why they should not sign on to the treaty. That is one possible outcome of an ongoing Obama administration review of U.S. mine policy.

“We want review aimed at joining the treaty and finding out whether there are reasons not to,” says Hudson.

He hopes the process is “timely and inclusive” and that all perspectives, including those of NGOs, NATO allies and legislators, are taken into account.

Every member of NATO except the U.S. has signed the treaty, though Poland has not yet ratified it. It is expected to do so in 2012.

In November, the State Department announced that the review had concluded with a decision not to sign the treaty, but following international outcry the State Department insisted the next day that the review was still ongoing.

There have been hopeful signs from the administration for disarmament and human rights activists as well, however. For the first time ever, the U.S. sent an observer to a meeting of the parties to the treaty in Cartagena in December.

But the overall trend is not so rosy for those who would like to see these and similar weapons banned. The Convention on Cluster Munitions reached the number of ratifications it needed to go into effect last month, but the U.S. – along with other top cluster munitions-users Russia and Israel – has also not signed on to that treaty.

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