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No Clean Sweep For Mines
Clinton really wanted to sign the new treaty, but his conscience and the joint chiefs got in the way
Bruce W. Nelan/TIME
WASHINGTON (TIME, Sep. 29) -- It was Princess Diana vs. G.I. Joe, and Joe, in the form of the Pentagon, won. President Bill Clinton decided last week that he couldn't buck the united opposition of his Joint Chiefs of Staff and would not sign a treaty banning antipersonnel land mines, which kill or maim 25,000 civilians each year. Clinton and his wife Hillary had been touched by the Princess of Wales' poignant visits to young victims of such mines in Bosnia and Angola a few weeks ago. After her death, the treaty being written in Oslo took on the luster of a humanitarian memorial to Diana and her cause.
Clinton wanted to join in that symbolic effort, and he put heavy pressure on the Pentagon to endorse it. But in the end, he said, he could not "in good conscience" accept the treaty as written. "There is a line that I simply cannot cross," he explained, "and that line is the safety and security of our men and women in uniform." Says a retired four-star general: "He couldn't take on the Chiefs." And if he had, there is no way the Senate would have ratified the treaty with the nation's top commanders against it.
The military's problem with the treaty is simple: Korea. "There is no place like it in the world," said Clinton. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is only 27 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, where the North's 1 million-strong army faces the South's defenders, including 37,000 U.S. troops. Mines, American generals argue, are the only way to slow down an onslaught from the North long enough to reinforce the South. So U.S. negotiators in Oslo asked the drafters of the treaty for exceptions that would, in effect, allow the U.S. to use such mines in Korea for 19 more years and would exempt antipersonnel weapons when they are used to protect antitank mines. This last-ditch wiggling from Washington got nowhere, and 89 countries approved the ban, which is to be signed in Ottawa in December.
Even the human-rights groups that provided the impetus for the Oslo meeting do not categorize the U.S. as a sinner. They wanted Washington to sign mainly to put pressure on other major states to get aboard. Now it is unlikely that Russia, China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel and others will sign on. Nor will North or South Korea. But most of the civilian casualties are suffered in such war-torn states as Cambodia, Angola, Afghanistan, Namibia and Mozambique, where millions of abandoned mines lie in wait. Those countries are expected to sign.
Except in Korea (and for another year or so outside the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba), the U.S. uses only "smart" mines that disarm or destroy themselves, usually after 48 hours. The U.S. has its own ban on exporting mines and in the past 18 months has scrapped 1.5 million of them and will get rid of another 1.5 million by 1999. Meanwhile, since 1993 the Pentagon has spent $150 million on demining and training deminers around the world. Such efforts cost more than money. The nine Americans killed two weeks ago in a midair collision over the Atlantic had just delivered a team of Special Forces demining experts to Namibia.
-- Reported by Dean Fischer and Mark Thompson/Washington
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