Land mines have been dubbed the "atom-bomb of the poor." Each day children are maimed, mothers killed, and vast swaths of precious agricultural land rendered useless by anti-personnel land mines (APLs). As a man-made problem, they are one that we can, and must, solve urgently.
Talks resume this week in Brussels as part of the Canadian-led "Ottawa process." This is a voluntary effort by many nations to negotiate a total ban on APLs by the end of this year in the face of seemingly interminable negotiations at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
An estimated 110 million APLs are currently deployed in 70 countries. Once a war has ended, all mine victims are civilians or peacekeepers. Angola has more land mines than people. The physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of these cruel weapons on some of the world's most vulnerable people are immeasurable.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing crusade of victims, of their families and communities, of doctors and humanitarian workers, and of governments to achieve a total ban on APLs.
Last year President Clinton called on the United Nations to "pursue vigorously" an international treaty to ban the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of APLs "as soon as possible." He also has pledged to make permanent the congressionally mandated ban on export and transfer of APLs and taken the lead in documenting land-mine carnage.
Despite the growing moral pressure for a total ban, mines are still being planted at the rate of 20 new ones to every one that is removed. They are cheap to produce and purchase, and some people continue to believe they are an appropriate and necessary weapon, particularly for places such as the Korean peninsula, where land mines help to protect long and threatened borders.
Fortunately, influential military voices are increasingly opposing APLs. Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and 14 other senior US military officers - including two former commanders of US forces in South Korea - now publicly support a total ban. In an open letter to Mr. Clinton last year, they said such a ban would be "humane and militarily responsible" and "would not undermine the military effectiveness or safety of our forces, nor those of other nations."
Regrettably, real progress within the UN toward a comprehensive ban is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. The Geneva process requires consensus and thus guarantees effective veto power to those who oppose a ban and profit from the sale of mines, notably China and Russia.
By contrast, the Ottawa process offers an innovative means to put the global ban on a much faster track. More than 70 governments voluntarily have said they will sign a new norm banning APLs by the end of the year.
Ottawa organizers hope the agreement will give the international community leverage to encourage nations that have not signed to join in. An agreement through the Ottawa process would undoubtedly enhance prospects for broader success in Geneva. Rather than being in competition, the Ottawa and Geneva processes should be seen as complementary; negotiators of any final treaty through the Ottawa and Geneva processes must be responsive to each others' concerns.
Strong US participation in the Ottawa process would help persuade others to come on board and would magnify the message that APLs are morally repugnant and no longer will be tolerated.
In a forceful display of bipartisanship, the US House recently urged the president to give active support to the Ottawa process, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, along with a majority of their Senate colleagues, introduced a bill to ban US use of APLs in 2000. This gives the White House further ammunition to overcome resistance in the Pentagon and engage with the Ottawa initiative on a fast track toward an international treaty.
Even a global ban will have little practical impact without necessary resources. Donors must provide greater support for mine-awareness education, developing and delivering mine-clearance technologies, treatment and rehabilitation programs, and related activities.
In the past five years, great strides have been made in understanding the horrific effects of land mines and in stigmatizing their use and production. It is time to take the remaining steps toward a total ban as quickly as possible. There is no substitute for US leadership.
* Former US President Jimmy Carter chairs The Carter Center in Atlanta, which promotes peace and human rights worldwide.