US must sign the treaty to ban land mines

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Fifteen years ago, I was camping in Israel and went hiking in the Golan, near Banyas. It was a beautiful morning ... until the earth exploded around me. I landed on my hands and knees. I smelled something burning and realized my foot was gone.

The international treaty to ban the production, stockpiling, and use of deadly anti-personnel land mines became international law on March 1. Since 1997, 134 countries have signed the treaty. Signers include every country in the Western Hemisphere except the US and Cuba; all NATO members except the United States and Turkey; the entire European Union except Finland; 42 African countries, and 17 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan.

President Clinton pledged five years ago to "lead a global movement to eliminate these terrible weapons and stop the enormous loss of human life." He refuses to sign the ban now, saying instead that the US will sign it in 2006 provided alternatives to land mines can be developed for use on the Korean peninsula. By then Mr. Clinton will have escaped Washington intact, but an estimated 150,000 additional people will have lost life or limb.

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Those of us who have experienced a land mine exploding under our legs and in our faces do not accept Clinton's refusal to sign the treaty. We now implore the president to follow through on his commitment by signing the ban.

Defense officials say American mines are not the problem. But what about our land mines left behind after World War II, Vietnam, Korea, tens of thousands dropped randomly during the Gulf War, and nearly 5 million US mines exported since 1969. They keep showing up as deadly military litter in Cambodia, Iraq, El Salvador, Angola, Somalia, Laos, and Afghanistan. Today, tens of millions of mines lie buried in more than 65 countries. We certainly share the blame and must lead the cleanup.

Some 300,000 people around the globe live with shattered limbs and lives, and the number is growing. Those of us who have survived are the "lucky" ones. Most victims die with no one to document their tragedy, killed by a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion that has claimed more lives than have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons combined.

Global humanitarians, including Queen Noor of Jordan, well understand that the mass human suffering inflicted by land mines far outweighs their very limited military utility. Survivors have been told that landmines are needed to protect our young soldiers on the Korean Peninsula, but tell that to Irv Axelrod, an American survivor who stepped on a US-made mine during the Korean war. Landmines offer no real protection. Respected military leaders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf and former commanders of US forces in Europe and Korea have said antipersonnel landmines are not essential, and that banning them would not undermine the military effectiveness or safety of our forces, nor those of other nations. Like poison gas, landmines must be banned.

State department officials suggest that the Pentagon is the real problem, and that the White House actually would like to sign the treaty. Last time I checked, the president was still the commander in chief of the armed forces. And while the Pentagon has never voluntarily given up a weapon, it's time for the military to abandon its deadly addiction to landmines.

This century, over a hundred thousand Americans have been killed or injured by land mines. Survivors injured in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, as well as US peacekeepers injured in Bosnia, and civilian victims injured in Africa and the Mideast, are joining in our call for Clinton to sign the land-mine ban in 1999. Let us walk into the new century with honor and hope for a land-mine-free world.

*Jerry White is co-founder and director of Landmine Survivors Network, an international humanitarian organization based in Washington, D.C.

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