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Ahead of Key Global Conference, US Announces Continued Rejection of Land Mine Ban

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The Obama administration has announced it won’t sign an international convention banning land mines. This is the first time the Obama administration has publicly disclosed its position on the Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of antipersonnel mines. We speak to Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch’s arms division and a co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has decided not to sign an international convention banning land mines. In response to a question about an upcoming review conference on the Mine Ban Treaty, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday the administration recently completed a review and decided not to change the Bush-era policy.

    IAN KELLY: Our — we — this administration undertook a policy review, and we decided that our land mine policy remains in effect.

    REPORTER 1: Why?

    IAN KELLY: Why?

    REPORTER 1: I think we’re one of only two nations, and Somalia is about to sign it, right? I mean —-

    IAN KELLY: Yeah.

    REPORTER 1: So we’re going to be the only nation in the whole world who doesn’t believe in banning land mines. Why is that?

    IAN KELLY: Yeah, I’m not sure about that, but we made our policy review, and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs, nor our security commitments to our friends and allies, if we sign this convention.

    REPORTER 2: So what are you planning to do at the conference then, when you -—

    IAN KELLY: Well, we’re there as a — as an observer. I mean, clearly, we have — as a global provider of security, we have an interest in the discussions there. But we will be there as an observer, obviously, because we haven’t signed the convention, nor do we plan to sign the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the first time the Obama administration has publicly disclosed its decision on the treaty which bans the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of antipersonnel mines. A hundred fifty-six countries have ratified the treaty, but thirty-nine others, including the United States, Russia and China, have not. A report this month by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines found that mines remain planted in more than seventy countries and killed over 1,200 people and wounded nearly 4,000 last year.

For more on the US position on land mines and what to expect from the summit in Colombia next month, I’m joined in Washington, DC by Stephen Goose, director of the Human Rights Watch’s arms division, co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

Stephen, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Your reaction to the Obama administration’s decision to follow the Bush administration in not signing on to this treaty?

STEPHEN GOOSE: Well, we really see this as just an appalling decision, an appalling decision that has been based on an apparently very flawed decision-making process. It’s a decision completely lacking in vision. It’s lacking in compassion. And frankly, it’s lacking in common sense. It shows a lack of political leadership by President Obama on what many, most others, see as a crucial global humanitarian issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly how this happened. What was your expectation when President Obama took office? And this latest question raised, in asking the Obama administration, that even Somalia will be signing on, and the response of the Obama administration that this is their commitment to their friends and allies? Presumably all of them have signed the treaty.

STEPHEN GOOSE: Well, that was a very confused response and exchange that we just heard at the State Department. Clearly, the State Department spokesperson is not at all familiar with the issue. The questioner, and in his response, were actually based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, where the US and Somalia are the only two who haven’t signed that. But indeed, most of the countries of the world have joined the Mine Ban Treaty. Virtually all of the major US allies have done so. Every other NATO country is part of the Mine Ban Treaty.

The process that led to this is just an enigma. In essence, this was a stealth review done in complete secrecy. So much for the Obama administration’s emphasis on transparency. They had never even announced that a review was underway of land mine policy. And we at Human Rights Watch and other non-governmental organizations and some key legislators like Senator Patrick Leahy had been encouraging them, urging them, begging them to undertake a formal review. But they never announced that such a process was underway. And then, suddenly, in a sort of off-the-cuff response to a question yesterday, they say that a review is already completed and that they’ve decided to align themselves with the Bush policy of never joining the convention. In fact, the US is now the only country that has said it will never join the convention. Even others like Russia and China have said that they will eventually join.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what you believe has happened, what you believe is taking place here?

STEPHEN GOOSE: I think we’ve just had a very hasty and cursory review of US policy. Certainly, they did not consult with key legislators on Capitol Hill. They did not consult with their major military allies. They certainly didn’t consult with outside experts, those who have been involved in this issue for decades, literally. And instead, it seems that they have simply decided to allow the Pentagon to dictate terms. The Pentagon said, “We reviewed this in the Bush administration; we don’t think anything has changed.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration did change things. The previous administration, under President Clinton, did not sign the treaty in 1997, but did make a goal of joining in the year 2006. Well, Bush abandoned that. So, the US was an early leader on this issue. In fact, President Clinton was the first global leader to call for the eventual elimination of antipersonnel mines. He just wasn’t ready to move fast, as many of our allies. But we set the target for joining in 2006. That was abandoned by Bush and now embraced by the Obama administration. It’s really extremely disturbing that the US can’t see the light on this, because it has largely been in compliance with all the key components of the treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Goose, talk about why this land mine ban is so important. What are the worst countries in the world? How much are land mines a problem today?

STEPHEN GOOSE: There’s still a huge problem with land mines, although the progress on this issue over the course of the past ten years has been rather astounding, since the Mine Ban Treaty came into effect. This year, the second five-year review conference of the Mine Ban Treaty is being held in Cartagena, Colombia, in just a few days’ time, and it will look back at what’s been accomplished over the course of the past ten years and plan for the future.

Land mines have been banned by so many countries because they are a horrific weapon that has taken too strong a toll on civilian populations. They still kill thousands, kill and injure thousands of civilians each year and have a heavy socioeconomic toll on many countries, like Afghanistan, like Cambodia, like Colombia, where this major diplomatic conference is being held.

But what we’ve seen as a result of the Mine Ban Treaty is a huge drop in the use of the weapon. In fact, in recent years, the only government that has really made any significant use of the weapon is Myanmar, is Burma, the outcast regime there. We’ve seen production falling off to only a handful of countries still being willing to produce the weapon. We’ve seen that trade, global trade, has essentially ended altogether. And most importantly, we have seen huge tracts of land cleared of land mines, with more than a dozen countries declaring themselves mine-free from those clearance efforts. And the number of new victims to the weapon has more than cut in half over the course of the past ten years. This is a huge success story. Clearly this is the most successful humanitarian and disarmament treaty of the past decade, if not more. And the US is on the outside looking in. It makes no sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I think it’s a very interesting point you raise, that, first of all, you didn’t even know that this review was taking place, and that you think it indicates the military is really in charge of policy in the country right now, in the United States, when it comes to the land mines. And we’re talking at the same time President Obama will be announcing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. I’m wondering your thoughts on — well, from land mines to Afghanistan.

STEPHEN GOOSE: I think there is a real sensitivity to not wanting to upset the applecart on an issue that can be seen obviously as a military and security issue, although above all it’s a humanitarian issue. But here are the facts. The US military hasn’t used this weapon in eighteen years. The last time the US used antipersonnel mines was in the first Gulf War in 1991. It hasn’t exported since 1992. It hasn’t produced since 1997. It has no plans for further procurement of the weapon. We’re basically in compliance with the treaty. The US has not used antipersonnel mines in the wars in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, not when the invasions occurred and not since. They’re highly unlikely to do so in the future. Both of those countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, have joined the Mine Ban Treaty. They have comprehensively banned the weapon. They’ve banned any possession of the weapon. The US would be going against the treaty obligations of those countries if they were to use antipersonnel land mines in those countries. So again, there’s sort of an Alice in Wonderland aspect to this, where there just is no viable reason to hold onto these weapons, from a humanitarian or military point of view, and yet, the political benefits and humanitarian benefits would be great. It should have been a no-brainer. They need to go back to the drawing board —-

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Goose,

STEPHEN GOOSE: —- do a serious review.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Goose, how are you at Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups around the world — of course, when Princess Di was alive, this was her main issue, to ban land mines around the world. How are you going to be organizing now? I assume there is a real scramble going on since yesterday, since this just slipped out, this decision of the United States.

STEPHEN GOOSE: Well, we’ve been doing just fine on this issue without the United States being on board, indeed without Russia or China being on board. We want all these countries to come aboard. But the fact is, this weapon has been stigmatized. It’s been stigmatized throughout the world. That’s why only one country still sort of dares to use it. They fear the international condemnation that would come if they were to use it. We still have a number of countries who are clinging to their arsenals of these outmoded weapons. But, in fact, the power of the convention, the power of the stigma against the weapon, affects even those who are outside of it. So this is a disappointment, but it doesn’t — it’s no sort of death blow to the efforts to get rid of this weapon. It would help us to have the US on board, could bring additional countries on board, as well, but it’s mainly a disappointment from the domestic perspective, that the US simply has no reason to stay away.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, longtime leader in the movement to ban land mines, thank you very much for joining us from Washington, DC.

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