Affirm U.S. commitment to banning land mines

March 05, 2002|By James Cobey and Richard Schultz

BEFORE SEPT. 11, there was already a war being waged on a type of indiscriminate terror: antipersonnel land mines.

Often called "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion," landmines indiscriminately maim and kill nearly 20,000 people each year in more than 80 nations.

In countries where surgeons, pain medication, blood transfusions and prosthetic limbs are almost nonexistent, people are losing their lives and limbs to mines every 30 minutes. Most of the victims are civilians, and about one-third of them are children.

Farming, travel and economic development are made nearly impossible by the terrifying presence, or perceived presence, of mines left over from conflicts days, months or decades old.

Nearly three-quarters of the world's countries have joined the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which outlaws the manufacture, transfer, stockpiling and use of this outdated weapon.

With the current war on terrorism and its condemnation of countries that produce weapons of terror, it makes more ideological sense than ever before for the United States to join the global mine ban. It makes diplomatic and life-saving sense as well.

All of NATO, except for the United States and Turkey, has banned the weapon.

Without political leverage on this issue, the United States has been unable to criticize India, which recently began laying mines along the border with Pakistan, or Russia, which continues to lay mines that wound and kill civilians in Chechnya.

Our government's reluctance to participate in this successful accord has also given political cover to the Northern Alliance, which has allegedly used the weapon in Afghanistan in recent months.

The result over decades will be countless more civilian land-mine injuries and deaths in a place that already had the distinction of being the worst mine-affected country in the world, with an estimated 5 million to 10 million mines in the ground.

Sadly, it comes as no surprise that American soldiers have recently had limbs blown off by land mines in Afghanistan.

President Bill Clinton's land-mine policy was for the United States to move toward compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty by 2006 if certain military conditions could be met, including those pertaining to the protection of South Korea.

However, many retired military leaders have spoken out against the weapon. In May, eight retired U.S. admirals and generals, including a former commander of U.S. troops in Korea, wrote to President Bush that antipersonnel land mines "are outmoded weapons that have, time and again, proved to be a liability to our own troops.

"We believe that the military, diplomatic, and humanitarian advantages of speedy U.S. accession [to the treaty] far outweigh the minimal military utility of these weapons."

In November, more than 500 U.S. veterans from all 50 states sent a similar letter to the president, reminding him that mines have caused more than 100,000 U.S. Army casualties since 1942, including one-third of all casualties in Vietnam and in the Persian Gulf war.

Human Rights Watch recently determined that nearly half of the land mines that are designated to protect South Korea from an unlikely North Korean invasion are actually stockpiled in the United States, not in Korea.

This calls into question the notion of the true usefulness of mines to the United States or other modern armies.

The Bush administration is reviewing U.S. land-mine policy. Unfortunately, as part of this review, the Defense Department recently asked the president to abandon all efforts to ban land mines by 2006 or ever and to eliminate the search for alternatives to mines.

As a result, in late December, 124 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, sent a letter to Mr. Bush asking him to not heed these recommendations but to eliminate land mines from the U.S. arsenal as soon as possible.

Now is a perfect time for the administration to affirm the U.S. commitment to ban land mines.

James Cobey, a member of Physicians for Human Rights, is an orthopedic surgeon practicing in Washington and a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Richard Schultz, who lives in Crofton, lost both legs to a land-mine explosion while serving in Vietnam. He is a retired Army sergeant and the former legislative director of a major veterans service organization.

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