Published March 15, 2002
Seizing on President George Bush’s recent visit to Korea, ban land mines advocates have launched a vigorous newspaper and TV campaign to promote their cause. In their view, the vast U.S. mine fields south of the 150-mile DMZ between the two Koreas, makes their case.
A full-page newspaper ad shouted: “Land mines kill or injure over 26,000 people a year” and “maim more American soldiers than they protect.” “It’s time for the U.S. to ban land mines! The world is waiting!”
These advocates seem oblivious to a sobering fact: The long road from Versailles to Pearl Harbor and beyond is littered with the whitened bones of high-minded international treaties that invoked utopia but delivered cynicism.
The continuing carnage of unmarked mines in Afghanistan in many other countries must be addressed. But how?
On March 9, 1999, the Ottawa treaty banning the production and use of land mines entered into force when 122 of the original 142 signatory states ratified it. The United States, Russia, China, and several smaller states have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.
Last year, a Land Mine Elimination and Victims Assistance bill was introduced in the Senate and House. Some 120 House members sent a letter to President Bush urging his support. American treaty advocates claim the backing of 300 educational, medical, and religious organizations.
Even before the treaty was negotiated, Washington had become the target of an international campaign to ban the mines by treaty. The very simplicity of this approach has attracted vocal support from Nobel laureates, Princess Diana, and Hollywood celebrities.
Most Americas and the administration believe that the treaty would be little more than an empty gesture. Like treaties outlawing chemical weapons or nuclear testing, they argue, it would be unenforceable.
Apparently, many treaty advocates believe that broad international agreements have a significant impact on the states that sign them. History suggests otherwise. The land mine treaty has a disquieting resemblance to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 outlawing war as an “instrument of national policy.” The pact was signed by 62 governments, including Germany and Japan whose leaders a dozen years later plunged the world into war.
Unlike the Geneva Conventions on POWs, the Land Mine treaty lacks strong mutual enforcement restraints. In World War II Germany and the Western Allies each had a powerful incentive to treat the other side’s POWs humanely with the reasonable expectation of reciprocity. And for the most part mutual restraint worked.
Further, many ban the mine advocates believe that specific weapons are the problem; eliminate the weapon and the problem disappears. This view implies that land mines are in themselves evil and destructive. In fact, land mines, like bombs and tanks, are politically and morally neutral. Their impact depends on how they are used.
In its failed conquest of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union used mines to kill and maim Afghan children and farmers.
In contrast, the United States has used mines to save lives. Specifically, thousands of mines have been planted south of the DMZ to deter another invasion from North Korea. So used, these mines have contributed to peace and freedom.
Further, the precise location of all U.S. mines in South Korea is marked and each mine has a build-in timer rendering it benign after a specified date. When peace between the two Koreas is finally achieved, no one on either side will be harmed by any remaining mines.
Washington has long led efforts to control land mines. In 1980, at the UN-sponsored Geneva convention “on the use of mines, bobby-traps, and other devices,” Washington took the lead in drafting Protocol II, now in force. The protocol doesn’t attempt to abolish mines, but rather to control them. Its prohibitions, virtually taken from the U.S. Military Code, include these practical constraints: 1. Mines may be used only against specific military objectives. 2. Mine fields in populated areas must have post warnings for civilians. 3. The precise location of all mines must be carefully mapped and the information given to authorities after hostilities.
Rather than reaching for an unattainable goal, advocates of abolishing land mines would do well to follow America’s practical and humane example.