War: Landmine treaty leaves US out in cold

More than 100 countries meeting in Oslo endorsed a proposed treaty that would immediately and completely ban anti-personnel mines. But the United States was last night facing diplomatic isolation after refusing to sign the treaty. Rupert Cornwell reports.
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Washington's rejection of the deal came after the collapse of a last ditch attempt to accommodate its objections - above all its demand for a nine-year grace period before the treaty is enforced, and an exemption for Korea where, the US military claims, landmines are an essential part of the defence of the South and the 37,000 American troops stationed there. It had also hoped to keep out of the treaty so-called "smart" mines, which de-activate themselves automatically.

But the mood in Oslo, fuelled by the global emotion generated by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had made so personal a cause of the anti-landmine campaign, was one of "no exceptions".

And despite the American resistance, led by the Pentagon, the other participants, from every continent, reached agreement in less than three weeks, lightning- fast by the leisurely standards of international treaty-making. Delegate after delegate insisted that concessions to one would open the gates to concessions to all, rendering an effective ban impossible.

Yesterday, a grim-faced Eric Newsom, the chief US delegate, told the conference that the "strongest efforts" to find a compromise - including personal calls from President Clinton to President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, the prime sponsor of the draft treaty - had failed.

Within minutes of his announcement, however, the proposal for an immediate and total ban was approved by acclamation inside the conference hall, and to the joyous applause of anti-mine activists waiting outside. Around the world, peace and humanitarian groups were similarly euphoric. "We won," exulted Jody Williams, a leader of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. "No, make that, `The world won'."

The UK Working Group on Landmines was even more ecstatic, talking of its delight at the "unambiguous" nature of the treaty.

The contrast could hardly have been greater with the sombre language used last night by Mr Clinton. He insisted that the US remained committed to eliminating landmines around the world. "But as it is now drafted, I cannot in good conscience lend America's name to that treaty," he told reporters at the White House. Even so, he could come under strong pressure from Congress, where anti-landmine feeling is strong, to adhere to the treaty.

In London, where the Government last summer announced its own ban on landmines, British officials welcomed the agreement as "a major step towards getting rid of these weapons completely," and Robin Cook spoke of the "beginning of the end for landmines". The Foreign Secretary paid warm tribute to the role of Diana in focussing "the attention of the world on the horrific effects of ... mines"

But, as one diplomat pointed out, "a treaty signed by America would obviously be a much stronger treaty", and made clear that Britain and Canada will continue to seek a formula to win US agreement before the agreement is formally signed in Ottawa in December.

But in reality, the hard part will only be starting. America is not the only hold-out. China, the world's largest producer and exporter of landmines, did not take part in the negotiations, nor have Russia or India given any indication they will sign. There are widespread fears too that, even with a ban, rogue governments, guerrilla and terrorist groups will find easy access to mines on the clandestine international arms market.

And even if no more anti-personnel mines are produced or sold, an estimated 200-300 million of them have already been laid, killing or maiming some 26,000 people annually - most of them civilians in poor, war-devastated countries that do not have the resources to get rid of them.

Even before December's ceremony in Canada, an "Ottawa Two" process is being planned, to ensure ratification and monitoring of the treaty, and set in motion a programme for full-scale global de-mining.