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Tiptoeing around landmines

January 03, 2007|Karl F. Inderfurth and Eric D. Newsom | KARL F. INDERFURTH served as special representative of the president and secretary of State for global humanitarian de-mining from 1997-98. ERIC D. NEWSOM was assistant secretary of State for political/military affairs from 1998 to 2000 and was U.S. negotiator for the Ottawa Convention. Both are on the faculty of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

REMEMBER the International Campaign to Ban Landmines? (It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.) Remember Princess Diana's visits to minefields in Bosnia and Angola? We do. As U.S. State Department officials during the peak of the global landmine crisis in the 1990s, we saw the human toll in Honduras and El Salvador, Somalia and Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cambodia. We also participated in the fierce debate within the U.S. government on whether to join the global ban on these hidden killers.

It's been 10 years since the Ottawa Convention, the treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. There has been great progress in the last decade, but the United States must make a new push to move the world into a post-landmine future.

At least 38 countries have ceased production of landmines. Only a handful of countries remain active producers. A de facto global ban on landmine trade is in effect. Mine use has fallen. Almost 40 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed. A record amount of land was cleared last year, and a few countries have been declared mine-free.

That's the good news. Unfortunately, tens of millions of landmines continue to be a daily threat and exact a terrible toll in more than 80 countries. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are killed or disabled by these indiscriminate, inhumane weapons every year. One in every five of these victims is a child. A growing number of landmine survivors -- half a million at last count -- face getting new limbs and then getting on with their shattered lives.

Today, more than 150 countries have joined the Ottawa treaty. The United States is not one of them. In 1997, President Clinton accepted the Army's argument that it needed anti-personnel landmines to protect American soldiers.

But Clinton did instruct the Pentagon to begin research and development on alternative weapons to substitute for landmines, and he set a goal of U.S. compliance with the Ottawa treaty by 2006 if alternatives could be found.

President Bush abandoned Clinton's goal of enabling the U.S. to sign the Ottawa accord, but the research program to develop effective landmine alternatives has continued, with promising results. The Pentagon has spent more than $320 million on the program, and a breakthrough has been achieved.

Today, a new weapon -- known as Spider -- is ready to enter production. It can perform the Army force protection mission even better than the old landmines, and it can be used in a way that complies with the Ottawa treaty.

Spider allows for remote control of each munition by a human operator -- the so-called man in the loop. Because the weapon has to be discharged by a person, the danger to innocent civilians of unintentional detonations of landmines is virtually eliminated. Thus the U.S. finds itself in a position to join the Ottawa landmine ban without putting U.S. soldiers at unnecessary risk.

But there's a catch. The Defense Department recently decided to equip this new weapon with the capability to override the human operator. Arguing that dire circumstances may arise, the Army wants to allow the weapon to be automatically detonated by the mere presence of something or someone heavy enough to set it off. This override turns Spider into the functional equivalent of the old, banned landmines.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), longtime advocates of eliminating landmines from the U.S. arsenal, have offered legislation to ban production of Spider with the command activation feature. Although there will be strong support for the Leahy-Specter approach, a confrontation between Congress and the president could end up weakening support for this innovative system. The Bush administration should work with Congress to take advantage of this breakthrough in landmine technology and put the United States back on track to sign the Ottawa Convention.

Two years remain in Bush's term. Thanks to the Pentagon's continued pursuit of the landmine alternative program, he has an opportunity to meet the military's force protection requirements and respond to the continuing humanitarian tragedy caused by landmines.

Signing the Ottawa treaty would also send a signal to our allies and friends, virtually all of whom have signed the convention, that the United States is committed to working with other nations to solve global problems -- a theme the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have stressed during Bush's second term.

A U.S. decision in the new year to formally join the global ban on landmines would provide a needed second wind to the international effort to make this convention truly universal in scope.

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