In 1918, shortly after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proposed the founding of an international organization dedicated to fostering cooperation among nations and the crafting of peaceful resolutions to international disputes. Although the inspiration for the League of Nations, as it would become known, was homegrown in the U.S., America never became a member.
At the time, popular support for the League was robust. However, opposition to membership, particularly among Republicans in Congress led by Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, was shrill and effective. Opponents at the time raised the frightening specter of new, constraining foreign commitments. They successfully stoked fears of governance by international fiat, loss of freedom and sovereignty, and the diminishment of American laws.
The vocabulary of fear mongering should sound all too familiar to us. The arguments opposing the League almost one hundred years ago echo the objections today of Republicans and the conservative movement to the successor to the League—the United Nations—and the humanitarian and human-rights treaties promulgated by its member nations.
And even though statements over the years from the White House and Congress purport to share many of the goals of treaties hashed out along the East River in New York, the political will to ratify those commitments has been sorely lacking.
It was surprising then that concerning one such treaty—the Ottawa Convention (or, as it’s more popularly known, the Land Mine Treaty)—the U.S. has finally come in from the cold.
At a conference of signatories in Maputo, Mozambique [June 2014], leaders announced something that anti-land mine activists have been advocating for since passage of the Land Mine Treaty in 1999. An American observer delegation at the conference released a statement indicating that the U.S.:
…will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel land mines in the future, including to replace expiring stockpiles. The White House press office went on to clarify that “the United States is diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and that would ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention.
What this means is that the U.S. is now on the road to officially banning the production, stockpiling, and use of anti-personnel land mines, and to committing the country to the total destruction of its remaining stockpiles.
This announcement brings the U.S. officially in line with policies that the American government has been quietly pursuing since the 1990s. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the last recorded use by the U.S. of land mines was during the 1991 Gulf War. An export ban on anti-personnel land mines has been in place and enforced since 1992. Since 1997 there has been no known U.S. production of the mines. Add to that record that the U.S. has become the world’s largest contributor of financial assistance for global mine clearance and programs for victims of land-mine accidents, and the argument for not acceding to the treaty becomes almost nonexistent.
Still, this belated, official policy shift comes after fifteen years of intense pressure from determined international grassroots organizations, such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and HRW.
In statements pressuring the U.S. to bring its policy into line with its behavior, Steve Goose, arms director at HRW, observed that:
It is nonsensical that the U.S. has spent billions of dollars to clean up the messes caused by land mines but insists on the right to use them again in the future. Throwing money at the problem is not enough. A permanent solution is needed, and the mine ban treaty provides it.
For the past five years, the Obama administration has been parsing the treaty’s provisions. Real progress under Obama’s watch comes after the failure of the Clinton and Bush administrations to move forward on committing to a treaty that bans these indiscriminate weapons designed to kill or maim people rather than disable military machinery.
Although during his time in office President Clinton signaled that he and his administration shared the treaty’s goals, Clinton was unable to craft a workable solution to the problem of existing land mines in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea that effectively scuttled any effort at the time to accede to the treaty.
The Bush administration—ever committed to the profits of corporations such as Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Alliant, General Electric, and Motorola—proposed that the U.S. deal with the problem of the 15,000 to 20,000 innocent noncombatants who are killed or lose a limb each year to land mines not by signing the treaty but by manufacturing and stockpiling only “smart” land mines designed to self-destruct after fifteen days.
President Obama, stepping boldly away from the concept that the world is just too dangerous a place for the U.S. to give up even a single weapon in its massive arsenal—no matter how inhumane—has now committed the U.S. to joining the 161 countries that already have signed on to the treaty. This vital policy shift from the world’s largest stockpiler of anti-personnel land mines (with the number estimated at between 4 and 10 million) sends a powerful message to the thirty-one nonsignatory nations, including China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North and South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
For the sake of the innocents whose lives and limbs are on the line, let’s hope those thirty-one get the message.