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Has U.S. given up on land mine ban?

It is with mixed feelings we witness the International Treaty on Landmines take effect March 1. It is gratifying that 133 nations have signed the treaty, pledging resources and money to clear the more than 100 million antipersonnel land mines that kill or maim thousands of soldiers and civilians every year.

At the same time, it is distressing that the United States is not among them. Not only are we not signing the treaty, but, according to recent news reports, the Clinton Administration is seeking nearly $50 million from Congress this year for a new type of artillery-fired land mine system designed to blow up tanks and people.

The procurement request raises questions about whether Clinton quietly has given up trying to comply with the global ban on the notoriously indiscriminate explosives. The United States has refused to sign the accord adopted in Ottawa in 1997, arguing that it needs antipersonnel mines to protect South Korea from North Korea.

Clinton has said the government would ban antipersonnel land mines everywhere but on the Korean peninsula by 2003, and then at that frontier by 2006 -- if alternatives could be found. But the president’s 2000 defense budget request casts new doubts on our nation’s conditional commitment to the Ottawa treaty.

Buried in the budget proposal is a request that would authorize $48.3 million to be spent on a new military system that would combine in a single artillery canister an existing antipersonnel mine with an anti-tank mine.

The treaty bans the production, use, stockpiling or transport of antipersonnel mines. The small devices, some costing no more than $3, have been used in more than 60 countries and remain deadly long after battles end.

Support for the treaty was built up with surprising speed by citizens’ groups, and then crystallized by their work, and later, ironically, by the death of Princess Diana of Wales, who had actively campaigned for the treaty.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999