Last week, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly revealed that President Barack Obama would follow in President George W. Bush's footsteps and not sign the international Mine Ban Treaty. Many of us had hoped he would embrace president Bill Clinton's pledge that the US would join.

The 1997 treaty was a landmark accomplishment. For the first time, a group of governments and civil institutions joined together to ban a conventional weapon that had been used by virtually every fighting force for decades.

Today, 156 nations are party to the treaty — including Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all of Europe except Finland (Poland has signed but not yet ratified), all of sub-Saharan Africa, except Somalia, almost half of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (including Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Algeria) and the entire Western hemisphere, except the US and Cuba.

A leader of my organisation, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, called another State Department official after the disclosure, looking for more information. The official confirmed the review was over.

The next day, after an immediate firestorm of protest, Kelly backtracked, saying a review was "still under way." This weak attempt at damage control is hardly credible and has been discounted by land-mine-ban champion Senator Patrick J. Leahy. The best hope now is that the outcry is loud enough so that the administration will revisit the issue and conduct an open and meaningful review of existing policy. But the possibility of policy change remains highly uncertain.

So why won't the US renounce land mines?

"We ... determined that we would not be able to meet our national defence needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention," Kelly said in the briefing.

This is absurd. And given the hush-hush nature of a review excluding almost everyone involved in the land mine issue, the real reasons remain unclear. Surely the administration has no intention of defending the homeland with antipersonnel land mines? All of its major allies — including the 27 other Nato members — have signed the treaty. Then, commitments to which friends and allies is Kelly referring to?

Perhaps South Korea? The Clinton argument for not signing the treaty immediately was that land mines are heavily used in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. As we pointed out then, however, and as remains true, land mines are not effective weapons of deterrence, particularly in the case of an outright attack on South Korea by the North. Even if they were, the land mines in the DMZ are South Korean, not American, and therefore would be unaffected by Obama's joining the Mine Ban Treaty.

Obama's position on land mines calls into question his expressed views on multilateralism, respect for international humanitarian law and disarmament. How can he lead the world to nuclear disarmament when his own country won't give up even land mines?

This administration has seemed all too willing to put aside human rights in the service of political expediency. Its response to Iran's post-election crackdown on nonviolent protest was wishy-washy; its response to the illegal Honduran coup has disregarded a huge spike in human rights violations there. Then there was Obama's decision not to meet Dalai Lama to avoid upsetting Chinese leaders.

If human rights are of so little importance to the president and his administration, why would they worry about international humanitarian law? Is that the unspoken reasoning behind land mine policy? Or is it reluctance to ruffle military feathers?

— Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service


Jody Williams was the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for which she was awarded, along with the organization, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.