A disarmament treaty that the most heavily armed nations in the world refuse to sign may seem like a lightweight document. But the land-mine treaty approved here yesterday by dozens of small and medium-sized nations shows that groundswells of idealism can play a major role in the post-cold-war world, backers say.
"This is a historic occasion," says Louise Doswald-Beck, who headed the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation here. "It is the first time we have ... a ban on a commonly used weapon. It shows that the interests of humanity can succeed over military and other interests."
After nearly three weeks of negotiation, during which the United States tried to water down the text, delegates yesterday formally approved a treaty strictly banning the use, production, storage, and transfer of antipersonnel land mines.
The document is airtight in that it covers all devices designed to explode when stepped upon. The only problem is that countries must sign the treaty to be bound by it. The US, Russia, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and a host of other nations, who account for more than half the world's population, have no intention of attending the signing ceremony in Ottawa in December.
The US argues that it needs nine years to phase out its mines, particularly those in South Korea that help defend the capital of Seoul, only 30 miles from the border with North Korea. The US has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
"As commander in chief, I will not send our soldiers to defend the freedom of our people and the freedom of others without doing everything we can to make them as secure as possible," President Clinton said Wednesday in Washington, when it became clear that the conferees in Oslo would adopt a ban without the exceptions the US sought.
The US also said it could not give up weapons systems like the Gator, a canister containing dozens of antitank and antipersonnel mines that can be strewn from aircraft or delivered by artillery.
A 'moral responsibility'
"We went the extra mile and beyond to sign this treaty ... but there is a line I simply cannot cross," Mr. Clinton said. He said instead he would push for a treaty with more realistic terms in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament.
Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland says the US has distinguished itself from other heel-dragging countries by at least participating in the Oslo conference and lending support to the broad goal of reducing land-mine deaths.
"The US is not the big bad wolf here," Mr. Egeland says. "In all the countries I have visited to observe the effects of the antipersonnel land-mine plague, I have never encountered an American mine.
"I think the United States has a moral responsibility, though, to be a pathfinder for other countries that are part of the problem," he says.
Other diplomats pointed to Russia and China as black-market sources for land mines used indiscriminately in guerrilla conflicts on several continents. But crude mines are simple to make, even in the field, so most efforts to eradicate them have focused on stigmatizing use rather than hindering trade.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont says he will push for legislation forcing the Clinton administration to honor the ban as negotiated in Oslo.
No matter how many nations sign in December, the treaty will not take effect until six months after the 40th nation ratifies it. Since ratification in many countries is unpredictable and time consuming, even optimists expect at least two years to pass before a ban can be said to exist. A large majority of the 89 nations participating in Oslo supported the treaty, but because it was adopted by acclamation an exact count was unavailable.
More nations needed
"To be effective, the treaty must have a lot more countries on board than are here in Oslo," says John Campbell, the chief Australian delegate. "And in any case the suffering will continue for many years because the mines are still in the ground." Some 60 countries are riddled by an estimated 100 million mines, many hidden in uncharted fields from long-forgotten conflicts.
The United Nations estimated that some 25,000 people, mostly civilians, are killed or dismembered by mines every year. The most-endangered nations include Cambodia, Angola, Bosnia, and the Central American countries, all of which were eager supporters of a ban.
So arduous is the task of clearing mines that after two years of intensive effort Honduras has removed only 2,000 of an estimated 30,000 land mines left on its soil by warring Nicaraguan factions a decade ago.
Cambodia's chief delegate in Oslo, Sam Sotha, says mines and the fear of mines in otherwise tillable fields are "the single most significant factor in the impoverishment of the entire country."
Compliance comes later
The Oslo conference was part of a unique process instigated last year by Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. The goal of the nations that answered his call to sidestep the stalled UN Conference on Disarmament was to achieve the strongest possible land-mine treaty text and to worry about compliance later.
Enthusiasts say it could be the model for dealing with other humanitarian crises.
"Since this was so successful, you can start to speculate about the future," says Austrian diplomat Thomas Hajnoczi.
"We have found a new way to do multilateral diplomacy that is much, much quicker than going through the usual institutional channels that require unanimity to proceed," Mr. Hajnoczi says.
Ms. Doswald-Beck notes that the US waited 50 years to sign a 1925 treaty banning chemical weapons, but the treaty nevertheless had the effect of a taboo. "We are convinced that the same thing can happen with the land-mine treaty," she says.
"In a very cynical world, in a very cynical century, we have to admit that most people respect the rules," says International Red Cross field surgeon Chris Giannou. "There are things that human beings should not do to each other, even in war."