THE DEPROLIFERATOR — This year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama on spec, if you will. In other words, it was a show of faith that he’d not only follow through on his nuclear disarmament plans, but launch other peace initiatives.
Of course, despite the monetary award, the prize doesn’t contractually bind the recipient to a specified course of action. Still, one can’t help but wonder how the president’s decision to inject a fresh infusion of troops into Afghanistan, a country already on life support, can be reconciled with his status as a Peace Prize winner. (Yes, I know about Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat.)
Meanwhile, the president is adding insult to injury with an issue that, even on a good week — never mind one that’s dominated by the Afghanistan decision — flies under the radar. The Second Review Conference of the 10-year-old Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines — pause for breath here — and on Their Destruction has just wound down.
For its part, the United States hasn’t used antipersonnel mines since the 1991 Gulf War, nor has it produced them since 1997. So far, so good. But that’s where the good news about the United States and land mines ends. First, the United States still possesses 10 million land mines. Second, along with Russia, China, and India, it’s one of the few states that hasn’t signed the treaty. As if that weren’t bad enough, five days before the conference, Reuters reported that State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said:
This administration undertook a policy review and we decided that our land mine policy remains in effect. … 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 signed this convention [not to be confused with the conference — RW]. … But we will be [at the conference] as an observer, obviously, because we haven’t signed the convention, nor do we plan to sign the convention.
Many ostensibly humane Americans are in favor of the United States retaining its nuclear weapons. They believe that nukes have been a successful deterrent and will never be used. But land mines are a different story. Ineffective as a deterrent, they’re deployed to impede the progress of the enemy. But they also hinder a state’s post-war recovery. The ultimate gift that keeps on giving, they are, of course, tripped, often by children, for years afterwards.
Still, some human rights activists were just grateful that the United States at least sent a team of observers. But most, as you can imagine, were incensed by the administration’s refusal to review its policy. At Change.org, journalist and human rights worker Daniel Gerstle wrote:
Many of us have been patient with the Obama Administration on foreign affairs only because if he moves too fast the right may rally and shave off the moderates needed to get pro-peace foreign ops legislation passed though the US Congress. But the Mine Ban Treaty? Seriously? … How many more legs need to be blown off to get a progressive peace laureate to ban an explosive which kills more civilians than combatants?
Nor did Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pull his punches:
The Administration’s approach to this issue. . . has been cursory, half-hearted, and deeply disappointing. … One would hope that an Administration that portrays itself as a global leader on issues of humanitarian law and arms control recognizes this is an opportunity. … I think [it] has made a dramatic mistake in this area.
What Exactly Do We Want With the Damn Things?
A day later, the United States had changed its tune somewhat. As Geneva Lunch reported, Ian Kelly said that the administration. . .
. . . is still reviewing its position on signing the 10-year-old Mine Ban treaty — the opposite of what it said the previous day, but it was unclear if the statement was a correction of an error, a change in tactics. . . or a change of heart following harsh criticism.
If it was a response to the outcry, it did little to mollify Jodie Williams, another Nobel laureate (the old-fashioned kind — she earned it). The founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “This weak attempt at damage control is hardly credible. … the possibility of policy change remains highly uncertain.”
Note that in 2006, then-Senator Obama voted in favor of an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill that would have banned the use of another unspeakably cruel weapon, cluster bombs, in civilian areas. Meanwhile, land mines can’t help but be deployed in civilian areas. What makes them different from cluster bombs? Ms. Williams attempts to divine the administration’s motives for clinging to land mines:
[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? [Since all] of its major allies. . . 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. [But] the land mines in the DMZ are South Korean, not American, and therefore would be unaffected by Obama’s joining the Mine Ban Treaty. … [Or is it just] reluctance to ruffle military feathers?
Unless the use of land mines is being weighed for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But, knowing President Obama, Ms. Williams’s last explanation seems likely.
Ultimately she finds the president’s land-mine policy self-defeating.
How can he, with total credibility, lead the world to nuclear disarmament when his own country won’t give up even land mines?
The conference ended with representatives of the states in attendance signing a five-year plan to further assist land-mine victims and recognize their care as a right. They also vowed to seek ratification of the treaty by those states, such as the United States, that have yet to sign it.
Land Mines: Cancerous to the Earth
Like bullets, land mines lend themselves to profligate use. In fact, the damn things metastasize all over the place. Removing them has been notoriously risky, but a recent, surprising new technique has developed, reports Inhabitat.com:
. . . scientists at the University of Edinburgh recently announced that they have engineered a strain of bacteria that glows green in the presence of explosives, making mine detection a snap.
According to Edinburgh University scientists, the new strain of bacteria can be sprayed onto local affected areas or air dropped over entire fields of mines. Within a few hours the bacteria strain begins to glow green wherever traces of explosive chemicals are present. … Our only concern is that great care must be taken when blanketing areas with the bacteria, such that their spread doesn’t amount to an act of biological warfare in and of itself.
Let’s see if we’ve got this straight. On one hand, we have an administration which, along with seeking to abolish nuclear weapons, would likely never use land mines. Yet it refuses to sign a treaty banning them. On the other, we have a new technique for removing them which may pose more of a threat than the mines themselves. Land mines certainly have a way of heaping irony upon irony, don’t they?