In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize because, according to the committee, “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” In his second term, Obama must embrace that promise — by taking steps to ensure that the United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to global agreements on peace and disarmament. He should start by sending the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty to the Senate for approval and by taking action to do away with America’s own arsenal of mines, whether the Senate approves it or not.
Obama was elected president in 2008 in part because of his sweeping calls to confront world problems that transcend borders. In his second term, what could be a stronger statement of support for multilateral diplomacy than joining the 161 countries — including every other NATO country and every nation in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba — already party to the Mine Ban Treaty? It’s very doable.
Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Obama hasn’t done so yet. The United States already follows most of the key provisions in the Mine Ban Treaty. It has not exported mines since 1992, hasn’t produced them since the mid-1990s, has already begun destroying stockpiles, and has not used antipersonnel land mines in two decades. These weapons are a deadly legacy that should never be used again.
Antipersonnel land mines cannot discriminate among the footfall of a soldier, a child, a grandmother — or an animal, for that matter. Once deployed, the mines remain lethal for generations, long outlasting any military need. With the end of fighting, virtually all land-mine casualties are civilians; hundreds of thousands of people have fallen victim to their scourge. And because they are both indiscriminate and disproportionate in their impact on civilians, they may be illegal under international law even without the Mine Ban Treaty, which completely prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of such weapons.
The Obama administration announced a review of U.S. land-mine policy in late 2009, but has been slow to release the results. Still, there’s reason to think ratification stands a good chance of passage in the Senate. In 2010, 68 senators — more than the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty — wrote to the president urging him to support the global ban.
Even if the Senate fails to act, however, Obama can still fulfill the obligations of the treaty using the powers of the White House. The current U.S. position — pending the now 3-year-old review ordered by the president — is to oppose “dumb mines,” which can lie in wait for decades, but continue to support so-called “smart mines,” which are meant to self-destruct or deactivate after a certain period. The problem is that smart mines are just as unable to distinguish between civilian and military targets, are not fail-safe, and pose an equal threat to innocent bystanders.
Without waiting for Senate action, Obama could extend the current U.S. prohibition to cover smart mines and accelerate the destruction of the U.S. mine arsenal, which once stood at more than 10 million mines. He could also release the number of mines that have been destroyed during his administration — a figure that has not yet been made public. A mine-ban policy in accordance with international law and Senate ratification would remain the goal, but there’s no reason to wait.
Beyond land mines, the president could begin to rid the world of another senseless danger: cluster munitions. These large weapons are deployed from the air or the ground, and they release dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosive submunitions, putting civilians at far greater risk than from conventional explosives. Children have been known to mistake them for toys. Obama should order an immediate review of cluster-munitions policy, with a mind to joining the 2008 international convention banning cluster munitions. The United States already plans to ban all but a tiny fraction of its cluster-munition arsenal by 2018 under a policy announced by the Pentagon in 2008. Why not simply eliminate them all now?
Despite some promising steps toward ridding the world of deadly weapons, like the president’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia, his first term was, unfortunately, defined more by the dramatic increase in the use of drones and the ongoing development of a lethal new category of conventional weapons — completely autonomous robotic weapons — than by the elimination of threats to humanity.
Obama began his first term by receiving a prize he did not yet deserve. By finally making land mines history, he can start his second four years by beginning to earn it.
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. This column ran first in Foreign Policy.