After two decades of waffling, the United States on Friday announced its intention to join an international treaty banning land mines, though it set no time frame as it works through complications on the Korean Peninsula.
Human rights advocates applauded the progress, but said the Obama administration should immediately commit to a ban and begin destroying its stockpile. Some Republicans objected, accusing the president of disregarding military leaders who want to maintain land mines in the U.S. arsenal.
The 15-year-old Ottawa Convention, signed by 161 nations, prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. President Bill Clinton had a goal of joining the treaty, but the Bush administration pulled back amid objections from military leaders. Obama ordered a review of the U.S. policy when he came to office five years ago, and a U.S. delegation announced the change in position Friday at a land mine conference in Maputo, Mozambique.
“We’re signaling our clear aspiration to eventually accede to the Ottawa Convention,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States has no land mines currently deployed but maintains a stockpile of just over 3 million.
“They are all in inventory and that’s where they will stay,” Kirby said. He added that the stockpile will begin to expire in about 10 years and will be unusable in about 20 years.
Land mines being used in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea are administered by South Korea, but the U.S. maintains a stockpile in South Korea in case of an invasion from the North.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula presents unique challenges, for which we are diligently pursing solutions that would be compliant with the Ottawa Convention,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
Steve Goose, head of delegation for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, said the U.S. should at least set a target date to join the treaty, immediately pledge not to use land mines and begin destruction of its stockpiles.
“While they are saying they are working toward banning them in the future, they are leaving open the option of continuing to use them in the meantime, which is kind of a contradictory way to approach things,” Goose said from the Mozambique conference. “They’re bad enough to ban them, but we still want to use them.”
The administration’s announcement also came under criticism by the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who cited recent testimony by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that land mines are an “important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States.”
“The president owes our military an explanation for ignoring their advice and putting them at risk, all for a Friday morning press release,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California.
Kirby said he would not speak for Dempsey specifically, but that senior civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon had a “robust discussion” on the policy and fully support the administration’s announcement.
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