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By Irwin Abrams

Dayton Daily News, Op-Ed, November 28, 1997

On December 2-3 more than 100 nations will come to Ottawa to sign the treaty banning antipersonnel land mines (APLs). There are more than 100 million APLs scattered over the earth, which disable and kill indiscriminately and threaten civilian populations and their social and economic development. These weapons lie in wait after the guns of war are silent, ready to maim a child at play or a woman gathering firewood in the forest. Every day 22 more victims, mostly civilians, are added to the baneful toll.

The United States will not be among the signers. But an American woman, Jody Williams of Vermont, will be there. She and the organization she coordinates, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL) are receiving the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their work transforming a ban on APLs "from a vision to a feasible reality" in the space of a few years.

Beginning in 1992, Williams coordinated a remarkable grassroots effort, bringing together over 1000 non-governmental organizations from 60 different countries and enlisting the help of the governments of Canada, Norway and Belgium.. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the leading U.S. public advocate of the ban, called this movement "a potent new humanitarian force ... that blends the best of civil society, individual advocacy and government action."

But while President Clinton in 1994 called for elimination of land mines, the United States remained aloof from the Ottawa process, preferring the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which was going nowhere. The Pentagon insisted on retaining its APLs on the South Korean border to prevent Northern Korea from overrunning South Korea. However, many military analysts consider APLs to be of minimal importance there, and a number of retired top officers have written to Clinton, declaring that a total ban of APLs would be "both humane and militarily responsible" and urging him to work for it.

When U.S. delegates finally joined the Oslo conference, where diplomats from 89 nations were preparing the text for Ottawa, the U.S. asked for an exception for its forces in Korea. Since exceptions could only invite other nations to invent their own, the conference refused to make this change.

Whereupon the U.S. diplomats withdrew and the White House declared that Clinton was "rock-solid" against signing the Ottawa treaty. Although he sent Jody Williams a letter of congratulations, there was no special White House occasion for only the third American in the last 24 years to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Refusing to sign the treaty leaves the U.S. in the company of such outsiders as China, Iraq and Iran. Within hours after the Oslo conference ended, President Yeltsin declared that Russia would sign at Ottawa, and then Japan made a similar declaration. Our European allies, Great Britain, France and Germany, were already aboard.

There is bipartisan support for anti-land mine bills in the U.S. Congress, and a California-to-Ottawa "Ban Land Mines" bus has encountered enthusiastic backing for the treaty at every stop. To counter pro-Ottawa opinion, the White House announced that the U.S. would end its use of APLs in Korea by 2006 and elsewhere by 2003. One million APLs would still remain in U.S. arsenals, however, although mixed with anti-tank mines and now renamed "submunitions."

Then on October 31 the U.S. announced a new demining initiative. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that while the Ottawa Treaty would ban the deployment of land mines, the emphasis should be on eliminating those already in place.

Jody Williams and the ICBL organizations welcome the promise of more funds for demining, an objective of theirs as well. But what good would it do to remove these mines if every year one million new land mines would continue, as at present, to be laid? Under the Ottawa Treaty the majority of states would be committed no longer to produce or use this inhuman weapon.

Americans may well ask why the highest technologically advanced and most powerful military nation in the world could not develop alternative methods to protect its troops in South Korea without using APLs of any kind. President Clinton should revisit that definition of "submunitions," order the Pentagon to work harder on alternatives to APLs, and sign the Ottawa Treaty.

Only then could our country be not only number one in the world militarily and technologically, but our president a primary humanitarian leader as well.