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Seek and Destroy – The Mine Ban Treaty

Signed in Ottawa, Canada on December 3, 1997, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (Mine Ban Treaty/Ottawa Treaty) was designed to eliminate landmines across the globe. The objective of this United Nations-led treaty was to make all governments commit to ceasing production and destroying their arsenals of landmines. Despite the benefits of such a treaty, some countries did not sign, including Russia, China, and the United States.

The United States’ decision not to sign the Mine Ban Treaty was derived from the commitment to defend South Korea by placing landmines in the neutral zone between North and South Korea. Even though the U.S. did not support the treaty, it works with nonprofit organizations that focus on disarming landmines and has donated over $2.3 billion for the destruction of conventional weapons in foreign countries since 1993.

When the draft for the Mine Ban Treaty was presented, 122 countries signed onto the accord, and more than 40 million landmines have been eliminated since the legislation came into effect. The push for the elimination of landmines stemmed from nongovernmental organizations and activist groups motivated to stopping civilian deaths and injuries caused by the mines. The Ottawa Convention marked the first time in over a century that nations showed overwhelming support for banning weapons.

Karl “Rick” Inderfurth recalled his time as the U.S. Representative for Special Political Affairs when he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 2001. Kennedy also interviewed Alan Blinken in May 2001, Donald Steinberg in April 2005, and Robert Beecroft in September 2004 about the mine ban initiative.

To read more about disarmament efforts, multinational cooperation and the work of NGOs in international relations, please follow the links.


“It was the first time a president had gone on record that these weapons should be eliminated”

Karl F. Inderfurth, U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Representative for Special Political Affairs, 1993-1997

INDERFURTH: One thing that became a major focus of my work at the UN (United Nations) was the humanitarian crisis around the world posed by landmines. When Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and I went to Somalia and Cambodia in July of 1993 to see two peacekeeping operations, we received briefing materials that referred to the large number of landmine victims. (Inderfurth is seen at left.)

One number continues to stick in my mind. In Cambodia, one out of every 236 Cambodians is a landmine victim. Once we got to Somalia, we received more information, but because of the security situation there we were not able to get out beyond the UN compound, except by helicopter.

We really didn’t get to see the people there, only the destruction that the continued fighting had caused. Admiral Jonathan Howe, who was the UN special representative, thought it was just too dangerous, although we were able to fly to Kismayu in the southern part of Somalia to see an effort being made to establish a local government council…

We decided that we would try to have a resolution adopted by the General Assembly that would call for an international ban on the export of land mines. That was the first of four resolutions we wrote and sponsored during my stay in New York. Every year we tried to strengthen the resolution.

The second year – and this required a great deal of work in Washington within the NSC (National Security Council) system – we were able to call for the “eventual elimination” of landmines. President Clinton included that call in his annual speech to the General Assembly. It was a real breakthrough – the first time a [U.S.] president had gone on record that these weapons should be eliminated worldwide.

A lot of people didn’t think that this was a realistic objective because landmines are cheap to make and very hard to detect. But because of the estimated 26,000 people a year killed and injured by land mines – most of them civilians – and because landmines are left to explode for years and years after the war or conflict is over, there was the strong view that these indiscriminate killers should be banned for all time, like poison gas was after World War I.

By the end of 1996, our resolution called for a binding international agreement to ban land mines – including their production, stockpiling, export and use. We were able to get more than 100 countries to co-sponsor that resolution. Over 150 voted in favor of it, with a few abstaining.

Also at this time the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was picking up speed, led by Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans Foundation and Jody Williams. That campaign and Jody, who I got to know well, later won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. The Canadian government also got very involved.

Unfortunately, once the point was reached that an international agreement to ban landmines was actually being drafted, the U.S. was unable to go along with it because of U.S. military reservations about the use of land mines, especially along the DMZ (demilitarized zone) separating the two Koreas.

President Clinton determined that we could not sign the treaty until those military concerns were met. We actually got ahead of ourselves on this – what we were saying about an international treaty and what we could actually do. Our efforts, including at the UN, did have the effect of prompting other countries, including all of our NATO allies, to start looking at this very seriously.

I remember the first time I mentioned to the British Committee on Disarmament Ambassador in New York — this was in ’93 — that we were going to call for the “eventual elimination” of landmines. He said it was a “gimmick.” I said, no, we are serious. Later the UK became one of the strongest backers of the treaty, with a big push from Princess Diana, who became a very visible spokesperson for banning landmines…(seen left).

So we were very successful in raising the visibility of this issue in New York, with plenty of meetings in the delegates’ lounge. I do believe that eventually the U.S. will sign the treaty.

I was the head of the U.S. delegation that went to Ottawa in 1997 to attend the signing conference. Secretary Albright asked me to take on the job of Special Representative for Global Humanitarian Demining, in addition to my work as Assistant Secretary for South Asia. It was in the former capacity that I was asked to head the delegation to the Ottawa conference.

I told the delegates that, while the U.S. could not sign the Ottawa treaty, we felt very much a part of the Ottawa process, which was to move toward the elimination of landmines around the world, and that we would keep working on this issue in very practical terms, with demining, assistance to landmine survivors, and landmine awareness efforts. That was appreciated, but there was still a lot of disappointment that the U.S. was not ‘on the dotted line.’

 “Replace our 37,000 troops on the North/South Korean border with 37,000 Belgian troops”

Alan Blinken, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, 1993-1998

BLINKEN: Much of the world community, because much of the press and some of the work of Princess Diana, decided, and I think wisely for the most part, that land mines were a terrible thing. After they are laid, there are no maps, and millions and millions of innocent citizens all over the world have been maimed, killed, and crippled by these things. The Belgian foreign minister, at that point… Erik Derycke, [who] was a former socialist, was in the forefront of banning the use of anti-personnel land mines. (Blinken is seen at right.)

The United States, of course, was not in agreement with signing an accord to ban these things, nor was Russia or China. The United States, it should be remembered, does not manufacture them or sell them. On the contrary, the United States has spent more money than all the other nations in the world to de-mine places in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, but it wouldn’t sign it.

The big international conference was held in Belgium. I forget, but one hundred-something were willing to sign the treaty, but not the United States, which sort of makes it a non-event.

The Belgium foreign minister was a little annoyed, but anyway, called up our office and asked me to come over. He wanted to discuss the United States’ distempered position because of their absence on the anti-land mine accord.

I went over to his office with a military attaché and the deputy chief of mission. He was there with… I can’t remember, but I believe we met also with the defense minister and some other players. There was a discussion.

I reminded him that Belgium was in violation of the land mine treaty anyway because anti-personnel land mines are placed around anti-tank mines, which NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) uses. He didn’t think that was very important, but what he thought was important was that the United States wouldn’t sign the treaty. It was only the right thing to do.

In a sense, it was the right thing to do. I said to the minister and the defense minister that I would be happy to sign the anti-land mine treaty on behalf of the United States right then in his office, if he would take care of one detail. Of course, there was a smile on his face.

Of course, he thought that maybe I knew something coming from Washington. He had run the conference and maybe I was giving them a signal and they were all excited. He said, “What’s the one thing?” I said, “Simply, replace our 37,000 troops on the North/South Korean border with 37,000 Belgian troops.”

That was the end of the discussion. The meeting was over.

That is our main defense. The United States also had other problems with the landmine treaty because there was no form of verification. The United States doesn’t make them and sell them. So, the United States really is sort of a neutral party, but of course, any international treaty needs the United States as a signatory to that, to be a factor.

“The United States was on the outside looking in”

Donald Steinberg, U.S. Ambassador to Angola, 1995-1998, Special Representative of the President for Global Humanitarian Demining, 1998-2001

STEINBERG (Ambassador): There had been a civil war that broken out [in Angola] again in 1992 and a quarter of a million people had been killed from 1992 to 1994. Cities around the country had been devastated by mortar fire and by other conflict. We had about three million people who had been driven from their homes, and that in a country that only has a population of about 10 or 11 million. Almost a third of the population was displaced. There were millions of landmines throughout the country that prevented people from returning to their homes. (Steinberg at right.)

There was, I said, some excitement because we had the prospects for consolidating peace. Just as I arrived the United Nations had decided to deploy a peace-keeping force, which was the largest in the world. We had some 11-12,000 peace keepers arriving as I got there.

That being said, the capital, Luanda, was devastated by neglect. The government had spent so much money on the war effort that the city was absolutely destroyed. It had moved from a city of several hundred thousand a couple decades previously to two to three million and just could not handle the infrastructure needs.

There was very little public water and certainly none that was potable. Electricity was really just generators that the embassies or the hotels or the wealthy Angolans could afford. The health facilities were virtually nihil. If you got sick, you really did have to medevac out of the country. There was gunfire outside of our houses all through the night. This was mostly police who were extorting money from the population.

We would train non-governmental organizations and fund them to demine areas. We had contracts with South African firms to come in and demine the major roads of Angola. There was a government demining center called Inter-Roy that we were supporting. It was a combination of military demining and demining of fields and schools and towns.

We also had substantial mine awareness programs, so that children in particular could identify and avoid landmines. We also had survivors’ assistance programs where we would assist. There were some 70,000 supposed victims of landmine accidents in Angola. We had prosthetic devices and rehabilitation programs for them. It was a major effort…

I mentioned before my interest in humanitarian demining and Madeleine Albright and President Clinton had put together a demining initiative around the world, which was about 50 million dollars designed to assist countries to get rid of landmines and there was a special representative of the president for that purpose, Karl “Rick” Inderfurth, who was also the assistant secretary for south Asia.

I was asked by Secretary Albright to take over that position, which I did. I became the special representative of the president and the secretary of state for global humanitarian demining.

In 1994, President Clinton had gone to the UN and basically said we need to eliminate the threat of landmines to civilians around the world and launched a big initiative. That said, the rest of the world picked that up and ran with it. A lot of private citizens, a lot foreign governments came together and took it a step further and said, let’s get an international treaty to ban landmines.

Jody Williams (seen right) eventually won the Nobel Prize for the movement along with Bobby Muller, the head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and a variety of others worked with the Canadians primarily, Lloyd Axworthy, to put together an international treaty to do just that.

In 1997, the treaty was being cobbled together and the United States had decided that, because we needed landmines in Korea and because we have something called an anti-tank weapon that uses personal landmines as protection, we didn’t want to be a part of it. The rest of the world proceeded to negotiate a treaty and the United States was on the outside looking in. I say the rest of the world; there are a number of countries in it.

“I don’t think the Ottawa Treaty has ever taken a mine out of the ground, but it sure makes the signatories feel good”

Robert M. Beecroft, Principal Deputy for the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, 1998-2000

BEECROFT: There are two kinds of landmines — anti-personnel mines and antitank mines. The Ottawa Treaty is an anti-personnel landmine treaty. An anti-tank mine is designed so that if you walk on it, it’s not going to explode. For it to explode, something big and heavy has to go over it. (Beecroft is seen at left.)

The United States has been the world leader in developing anti-tank mines that self-destruct; they deactivate automatically after a set period. Our anti-tank mines become inoperable after a certain period, and this is certainly true for our anti-personnel mines as well.

We are the only country that can make that statement, so in a very real way we are already ahead of the Ottawa Treaty, but we’re talking about the realities of the world, something the drafters of Ottawa chose to dismiss.

For us, this is about Korea. You have a North Korean army of a couple of million soldiers. Seoul is 35 miles south of the border. The U.S. Army and the South Korean Army depend on landmines as a deterrent. Our anti-tank mines are surrounded by anti-personnel mines, to discourage people from trying to go in and turn off the anti-tank mines.

Now, the Ottawa Treaty requires that if you put satellite anti-personnel mines around an anti-tank mine, they have to be physically connected by wires to the anti-tank mine. Ours are not; they’re linked by radio, which is every bit as effective.

So on this point, Ottawa is a red herring. It isn’t how they’re connected that’s the question; it’s how effective and controllable they are. Ours are very controllable — and they also deactivate after a given period…

Their agenda was driven mainly by NGOs, non-governmental organizations, which tended to be anti-American. Sorry, but that’s the fact. They didn’t like the fact that we were the 800-pound gorilla.

Now, we’re talking about Bill Clinton’s Washington now, not George W. Bush’s, so one would have thought that there might have been a little more understanding. No way. It was a “we’re from Venus and you’re from Mars” attitude.

Now, I should add that a lot of this has changed since the late ‘90’s, when the Ottawa Treaty was drafted. Now, the U.S. works very closely with demining NGOs. We at the Embassy worked with them in Bosnia, but at the outset there was a real cultural disconnect. Unfortunately, it influenced the negotiations and our negotiators simply were not about to yield on this.

Most of the countries that signed the Ottawa Treaty don’t have to think about the North Korean army. This is where I tend to feel very American. This just was frankly none of their business at Ottawa. They made it their business, and they got it wrong.

In the meantime, the United States continues to put a good deal of money into taking mines out of the ground. I don’t think the Ottawa Treaty has ever taken a mine out of the ground, but it sure makes the signatories feel good.