Dangerously waiting for unwary soldiers and civilians, including children at play, are an estimated 110 million land mines in more than 60 countries. Another 100 million are stockpiled. Mines kill or wound some 30,000 people a year, 60 percent of them under 15.
Now President Clinton has an opportunity to stop foot-dragging and take a lead in international efforts for a total ban on these insidious weapons. One valuable step would be to support wholeheartedly next month's meeting in Vienna to fashion a treaty prohibiting the production, export, stockpiling, and use of antipersonnel mines.
Fifteen retired US generals, including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf from the Gulf war, have endorsed the immediate prohibition of such mines. But today's Pentagon seems to have won Mr. Clinton's ear for a slower approach through the United Nations.
There has been enough delay since 35 UN members signed limited controls on land mines 15 years ago. America should act like the world's acknowledged as well as self-styled leader, and proceed on both short-term and long-term tracks. The treaty efforts in Vienna, impelled by Canada, can be pursued toward a hoped-for signing in December, while the US continues to move ahead toward the broad UN consensus-taking years.
The US secretary of state-designate, UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, has written eloquently against land mines in these pages, favoring the UN moratorium approach. An opinion piece by her appeared three years ago. Last fall she said in a letter to the editor: "At the UN and around the world, as well as at the just-concluded Ottawa Conference [which led to the forthcoming Vienna meeting], we will continue doing all we can to end this horror and make our earth safe once again." She was responding to a plea against land mines by Robert A. Seiple, president of World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization, writing as one who had scattered land mines in Vietnam when a US Marine aviator.
As the various time-consuming negotiations go forward, tragedy can be ameliorated by expediting technological advances to safely identify (perhaps by satellite) and neutralize existing mine fields. And unilateral actions can have decisive effect, as urged by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, foremost legislative voice for speedy international control. He notes that 46 governments have stopped exporting antipersonnel mines in the four years since President Bush signed the Leahy amendment for a one-year exports moratorium, extended through this year by Clinton. The president also signed an amendment to impose a moratorium on the use of such mines.
We honor these steps while pleading for much, much more.