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Join in the church's campaign to rid the world of land mines

As many as 120 million land mines placed in more than 80 countries around the globe kill or maim someone every 20 minutes. That's 26,000 victims a year.

Too often the casualties are noncombatants and likely the poorest of the poor. The daily horror of death and mangled limbs has not claimed the public attention it deserves.

The death of Princess Diana, who had taken up banning land mines as a personal cause, brought the spotlight back on the issue. Internationally, the distressing statistics have caught the notice of enough people that 89 countries last month approved a draft treaty banning antipersonnel land mines.

That the United States will not be among those signing the treaty in a December ceremony in Ottawa is a national shame.

President Clinton, who urged the elimination of land mines in a 1994 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, had an unfortunate change of heart in recent months. At the last minute, he announced the United States would end its attempts to amend the treaty and consequently would not sign the agreement. The United States wanted exceptions in the treaty to permit continued use of the mines along the divide between North and South Korea, as well as continued use of "smart" mines, which self-destruct after a few hours or days.

Clinton had moved to make permanent a one-year ban on antipersonnel mine exports. In the U.N. speech he called for the "eventual elimination " of antipersonnel mines. "Ridding the world of those often hidden weapons will help save the lives of tens of thousands of men and women and innocent children in the years to come," he declared.

So what happened?

Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., head of the U.S. Catholic Conference's International Policy Committee, said in a statement, "I fear that our nation's leadership has lost an opportunity in the urgent struggle to effectively ban these indiscriminate killers."

The statement acknowledged the initiatives the president has taken toward banning the use of the weapons, "but they cannot be substitute for active U.S. participation and leadership in bringing about a global ban on antipersonnel land mines without exceptions and without undue delay."

The lost opportunity abroad represents a sad capitulation at home to pressure from the defense establishment. We only hope that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a leader in the push to ban land mines, will continue his campaign.

According to the Congressional Quarterly publication CQ Researcher, Clinton simply backed away from a fight with the Pentagon. Robert O. Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and one of the leading advocates of a ban on the use of land mines, recalled a White House dinner last year during which he, Gen. David C. Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert Gard, a retired Army lieutenant, confronted the president on the issue.

"I said, 'Mr. President, for God's sake, we've got Bob Dole cosponsoring everything' " Leahy has sponsored on the issue, recalled Muller. " 'We've got Bob Dole's wife Elizabeth openly testifying before Congress as head of the American Red Cross to ban the weapon. We have America's retired military elite telling you this is the militarily responsible thing to do. We don't have a single member of Congress that's standing up and saying we need this weapon. What more can we do?' "

"He said, 'I can't afford a breach with the Joint Chiefs.' The only thing Clinton cared about was his relationship with the Joint Chiefs. ... This is not what you want a commander in chief's posture to be. The fact that we have to move heaven and earth to get rid of this stupid piece of garbage is nuts."

Clinton had enough military wisdom telling him antipersonnel mines are unnecessary that he should have overruled the Pentagon.

"It is the job of our civilian leaders," said Leahy in an interview, "to act when there are overriding humanitarian concerns."

The humanitarian issues in the matter of land mines are indisputable and Clinton's claims that continued use of the weapons is necessary to assure the security of U.S. forces is empty bluster meant to appease his military critics.

To its credit, the United States Catholic Conference is continuing to coordinate the national Catholic Campaign to Ban Landmines, which recently mailed educational materials to the country's 20,000 parishes. In his statement, McCarrick said "an early effective and comprehensive ban on antipersonnel land mines is an urgent moral priority."

Join the campaign. Check with your parish and let Clinton and Congress know that this is a clear and compelling matter about which there is broad consensus.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997