Senate pushes White House to sign treaty on land mines

(UNITED STATES) 8 May 2010 - More than two-thirds of the Senate is urging the Obama administration to consider signing an international treaty that bans land mines, reviving a dormant campaign from the 1990s that left the United States divided from its closest allies.Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in an interview Friday that 68 senators had signed a letter to President Obama to support a "comprehensive review" of U.S. policy on land mines.


The letter is an indication that there are enough votes in the Senate to ratify the treaty -- at least 67 would be required -- if Obama signs the measure, which has languished in Washington for a decade."We want to show we have enough people to ratify a treaty," Leahy said. "I think there's an excellent opportunity that we'll finally do it."The pressure from Congress leaves the White House in an awkward position as it tries to navigate between Obama's desire to work closely with allies on security issues such as nuclear disarmament, while at the same time listening to advisers at the Pentagon, many of whom are leery of such campaigns. The mine ban treaty was the result of a grass-roots movement championed by celebrities, including Princess Diana, and ordinary citizens such as Jody Williams, a Vermont native who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her role as founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. About 5,000 people a year -- the majority of them civilians -- are killed or maimed by mines scattered across 70 countries. Neither President Bill Clinton nor President George W. Bush signed the treaty, which was negotiated in 1997 and took effect in 1999. Their rejections left the United States at odds with more than 150 countries that embraced the accord, including every member of NATO.
The treaty prohibits the manufacture, trade and stockpiling of land mines. The United States has not used anti-personnel mines since the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and stopped producing them in 1997, but the military keeps about 10 million of them in reserve. In November, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly announced that the Obama administration had decided against signing the treaty, saying, "We would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies." But after Leahy and human-rights groups condemned the decision, the State Department said it would revisit the issue and conduct a broader policy review. White House and State Department spokesmen emphasized Friday that the administration is in the midst of a comprehensive review, cutting across all affected agencies, that will not be completed for some months. But two senior U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity indicated that the administration is actively looking for ways to come into compliance with the treaty without endangering national security needs."We are asking that if you come into compliance, what would be the costs and the benefits -- and if there are costs, how can they be addressed in other ways," one senior official said. The official described the administration's review as "a herculean effort" intended to "cut through reflexive reactions" to the issue of eliminating land mines from the Pentagon's arsenal. Officials also said they welcomed the indication of bipartisan support represented by the Leahy letter.
Another senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the administration is looking at what new technologies could be used to bring the United States into compliance with the treaty while also allowing it to respond to threats such as North Korea. Some military officials want to maintain the U.S. stockpile in case it is needed to slow an invasion of South Korea by the North. About 30,000 U.S. forces are stationed in the South. The Pentagon declined to say whether it would support the treaty, citing the Obama administration's review. "It would be premature at this time to provide any statement until the review is complete," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. Leahy, who has fought for a land-mine ban for many years, said there was bipartisan support in Congress for ratifying the treaty. Ten Republicans have signed the letter to Obama, which Leahy said will be delivered to the White House next week. The lead Republican co-sponsor is Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), Leahy aides said.In November, Leahy criticized the Obama administration's initial decision to reject the treaty as "a default of U.S. leadership." Since then, he said, White House and State Department officials have left him with the impression that they are seriously considering adopting the treaty, especially if he can help deliver the votes in a Senate that is usually sharply divided along partisan lines.
"It's been a much more positive response than I've seen in a long, long time," Leahy said of his talks with administration officials. Leahy noted that Obama has pushed for a global reduction in nuclear arms; ignoring land mines, he added, could undercut U.S. diplomacy on that front. "If we want to keep the high moral ground, then we have to do it," he said. Although Clinton did not sign the international mine ban, he ordered the Pentagon in 1998 to develop alternatives to antipersonnel mines, with the goal of giving them up completely by 2006.In 2004, in response to objections from the Pentagon, Bush adopted a different policy that permits the U.S. military to use sophisticated mines that are designed to self-destruct within a fixed number of days. The idea was to reduce civilian casualties from unexploded mines left on the battlefield. At the same time, Bush set a deadline of 2010 for the U.S. military to end the use of antipersonnel or anti-vehicle mines that lack timers. Obama administration officials have said that they are on track to meet that deadline this year. Neither China nor Russia has ratified the international mine ban treaty. Human rights groups say there is little pressure for them to do so as long as the United States doesn't sign.

Von: Copyright 2010, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved, By Craig Whitlock and Glenn Kessler

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