Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Jody Williams
This week, at a global conference on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, we celebrated our progress toward a landmine-free world.
Delegations from some 100 countries of the 161 that are part of the treaty attended the Third Review Conference in Maputo, Mozambique. Joining them were representatives of U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Once called a “utopian dream,” the treaty has been a success by all measures. Only Burma has consistently used landmines — once a grim feature of war — since the treaty was negotiated.
Each year there are fewer new landmine victims.
Fifty-four countries used to produce landmines. While 12 nations outside the treaty retain the right to do so, it appears that only four actually do so: Burma, India, Pakistan and South Korea.
Global trade in the weapons ceased in the mid-1990s.
Parties to the treaty have destroyed 47 million stockpiled mines, and 27 countries have been declared mine-free, with Mozambique set to finish mine clearance by 2015.
But the United States and other big powers, including Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, are not part of the Mine Ban Treaty.
Two decades ago, the U.S. State Department issued a landmine report entitled “Hidden Killers,” warning that the global landmine problem “is getting worse” because “more landmines are deployed in armed conflict every year than are removed by mine clearance personnel.” It detailed how landmines were claiming an estimated 26,000 victims globally each year — mostly civilians. It noted that landmines placed “strains upon the social fabric of [a] society as a whole,” and posed “an enduring threat to post-war reconstruction around the world.”
One year later, President Clinton called for the “eventual elimination” of landmines in his 1994 speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
The Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated with lightening speed, in diplomatic terms, only four years later. But when it came time to sign it in December 1997, President Clinton balked, saying the U.S. would need until 2006.
Of course, Mr. Clinton was not in office by then, and George Bush had no intention of joining the ban.
President Obama has articulated no landmine policy and is essentially following the policy of his predecessor.
Through it all, the Defense Department has claimed it needs landmines to defend South Korea.
That argument is a fig leaf. After all, the mines used in South Korea belong to South Korea, not the United States. And even former U.S. commanders in Korea have rejected the notion that landmines are essential to its defense and have said the weapons should be banned.
Many believe the issue for the US military is much more fundamental: It does not want civil society and small- and mid-sized countries to dictate what weapons can and cannot be used.
Washington has sent two delegates to Maputo as observers at the Review Conference. In discussions with members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, delegation head Steven Costner said he had no new policy-related statements to make, indicating that Obama’s now five-year-long landmine policy review is still under way and that its results will be announced in due course.
We have heard that for a couple of years now.
Despite the intransigence of the United States and other big powers in not signing the treaty, the stigma we attached to these weapons had an effect.
The United States has followed the major obligations of the Mine Ban Treaty since the 1990s. It has not used landmines since the 1991 Gulf War, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since the mid-1990s, and has destroyed millions of its stockpiles.
While Russia and China have not gone that far, both stopped the production and export of landmines.
Russia, once estimated to have 50 million mines in its stockpiles, has reported the destruction millions of those mines, and is now believed to have less than half the original number.
Like Russia, China has annually destroying tons of mines, along with other explosive weapons. This week, for the first time, in discussions with members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, China revealed that its stockpile contained 5 million antipersonnel landmines. Original estimates of its stocks were 110 million.
If that is an accurate number, China may have fewer landmines than the United States. The United States has not revealed how much of its admitted stocks of more than 11 million antipersonnel landmines it has destroyed.
Six months before this week’s meeting, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which is recognized as the force behind the Mine Ban Treaty, issued a new challenge to governments to “commit to complete” all treaty obligations by 2025 and create a truly mine-free world.
The United States should join the 161 other countries that are signatories to the treaty and fulfill its obligations.
Then it could hold the next treaty review conference, in 2019, right there in Washington, D.C.
Jody Williams served as founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, with which she shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Currently, she is the chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.