The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, focused world attention on the campaign to ban antipersonnel land mines (APL), a cause which she helped publicize.
Ironically, the Clinton administration, which expressed its admiration for her efforts, is undermining her goal of a mine-free world by seeking exceptions to a draft treaty, being finalized in Oslo this week and next, which would ban the production, stockpiling, use, and export of such mines.
There are more than 100 million antipersonnel mines scattered around the world with another 100 million in military inventories worldwide. Approximately 26,000 people a year are killed or maimed by mines, most of them civilians, and most of them women and children. That works out to a death or injury about every 22 minutes.
The problem is that US officials continue to legitimize land mines as acceptable weapons when the reality is that they contravene international humanitarian law governing the conduct of hostilities. Mines are utterly indiscriminate weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The use of so-called "smart" mines, those that self-destruct after a certain period of time, will not change that reality.
Earlier this year the US declared it would work in the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for a worldwide ban on mines. As the CD is notoriously slow, works by consensus, and includes states opposed to a comprehensive ban, this approach ensures nothing will be accomplished. President Clinton ignored a more promising alternative, a Canadian-led initiative known as the Ottawa process.
Last October the Canadian government sponsored a conference for those nations interested in achieving a comprehensive ban on APL. Canada declared it would hold a treaty- signing conference for a total ban by the end of this year. At the end of the conference over 50 states declared their support. Currently 107 states have declared their support.
Although Mr. Clinton has called for the eventual elimination of APL, his actions have not lived up to his rhetoric. For example, last year Clinton released the administration's land mine-policy that continued the status quo. The president ordered the Pentagon to stop using dumb (non-self-destruct/self-neutralizing) mines by 1999, except along the Korean Demilitarized Zone and in troop training, but reserved the right to use smart mines.
Furthermore, the US continues to insist exceptions should be made for its self-destruct ("smart") and non-self-destruct ("dumb") mines in the Korean DMZ. On Aug. 18, in a transparent attempt to spin the issue, the administration announced that it would participate in Ottawa. But it has not changed its stance on trying to carve out exemptions for its current land mine policy. Thus, it went to Oslo knowing that its policy is unacceptable.
Clinton has been reluctant to change policy for fear of antagonizing the Pentagon. But even American military officials acknowledge that land mines are replaceable.
A report released by the Pentagon in May stated that "effective alternatives should be feasible by integrating various elements of existing and near-future technologies, combat forces, and military doctrine."
For example, in Korea, mines could be replaced by increased use of such weapons as the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or greater use of new technologies, whose ability to precisely locate targets lessens the need to rely on indiscriminate weapons such as land mines.
The argument that mines are needed for their battlefield utility is increasingly questioned. Actual combat experience shows that antipersonnel mines are likely to inflict a deadly "blow-back effect" - harming the very soldiers they are meant to defend.
In Vietnam, the US Army estimated that 90 percent of the mines and booby traps used against its troops were either US-made or made with US parts.
A third of all US casualties in Vietnam were caused by mines and booby traps.
The president should take that as his cue. It is an unpleasant fact that the effort to locate and destroy existing land mines will take us well into the 21st century. At the very least he should try to keep the problem from getting worse.
He can do so by supporting a worldwide ban, with no exceptions, on the production, development, export, and use of mines by the time we enter the next millennium.
* David Isenberg is a senior research analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.