07.08.14

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On A Step Toward A Landmine Ban

Mr. President, everyone knows the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  As a life-long photographer I have a strong sense of that, and I want to provide a few examples today because sometimes words are not enough. 

I have often spoken about the horrific toll on civilians from landmines.  These tiny explosives, about the size of a hockey puck or can of soup, can kill a child or blow the legs or arms off an adult. 

They are triggered by the victim – in other words, unlike a gun that a soldier aims and fires, or a bomb that is dropped and explodes on a target, landmines wait for their victims.

It can be a few hours, days, weeks, or years.  But however long it is after they are scattered and hidden beneath a layer of sand or dirt, they explode when an unsuspecting person, whether a combatant or an innocent civilian, steps on it or triggers it with a plow or a wheelbarrow or a bicycle.

Suddenly, that person’s life is changed forever.  In many countries where there are few doctors, mine victims can quickly bleed to death.  Those who survive, with a leg or both legs gone, are the lucky ones. 

This girl is an example of who I am talking about.  I don’t know her nationality, but the picture tells us a lot.  Her life, already difficult has been made immeasurably harder because of a landmine that probably cost less than two dollars.

These photographs tells a similar story.  None of them were combatants.  Each facing lives of pain and stigmatization because of weapons that are designed – designed – to be indiscriminate.

The Leahy War Victims Fund has helped some of them, as this photograph shows.  But I wish there were no need for it. 

Over the years, as people around the world became aware of the landmine problem, they took action.  The United States Senate was the first legislative body to ban exports of antipersonnel landmines.  Other countries soon followed our example.    

Thanks to Canada’s former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, an international treaty outlawing the weapons has been joined by 161 countries.

I regret that the United States is not among them, even though the U.S. military has not used antipersonnel mines for 22 years despite two long wars. 

On June 27, the Obama Administration finally took a step – an incremental step but a significant one – to put the United States on a path to join the treaty.  Although the U.S. has not produced or purchased antipersonnel mines since the 1990s, the White House announced that as a matter of official policy it will no longer produce or otherwise acquire antipersonnel mines.  Nor will the Pentagon replenish its stockpile of mines as they become obsolete.

Our closest allies and many others around the world welcomed this step, even though it falls far short of what supporters of the treaty have called for.

But one senior Member of the House of Representatives immediately accused President Obama of ignoring U.S. military commanders, some of whom have defended the use of landmines just as the military defended poison gas a century ago. 

He said the President, quote “owes our military an explanation for ignoring their advice”, and that this decision represents a quote “expensive solution in search of a nonexistent problem.”

A member of this body called the announcement a “brazen attempt by the President to circumvent the constitutional responsibility of the Senate to provide advice and consent to international treaties that bind the United States.”

Those are strong words, but the truth lies elsewhere.  Over the years the White House consulted closely with the Pentagon, including about this decision, and the policy it just announced simply makes official what has been an informal fact for at least 17 years. 

It also ignores that the U.S. has neither joined the treaty nor has the President sent it to the Senate for ratification.  The President has obviously not circumvented the Senate’s advice and consent role.

And it ignores that every one of our NATO allies and most of our coalition partners have renounced antipersonnel mines, as have dozens of countries that could never dream of having a powerful, modern army like ours.  

The naysayers’ argument is simple.  It goes like this:  The United States is no longer causing the misery captured in these photographs, so why should we join the treaty? 

Do they also oppose the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, like the crippled people in these photographs; the Chemical Weapons Treaty; and every other treaty dealing with international relations that the United States has joined since the time of George Washington?  

Does the fact that we are not causing a problem – that we do not use landmines or chemical weapons – absolve us from having a responsibility to be part of an international treaty to stop it?  Of course not.  The world looks to the United States for leadership.

If the U.S. Senate had accepted that argument in 1992 we would never have voted, 100 to 0, to ban U.S. exports of antipersonnel mines.  Our mines were not causing the problem, so I suppose those in the House who criticize President Obama today would say the entire Senate was wrong 22 years ago. 

Those 100 Democrats and Republicans who voted back then to ban U.S. exports of antipersonnel mines understood that while the U.S. may not have been causing the problem, we needed to be part of the solution.  The same holds true today. 

In 1996, President Clinton called on the Pentagon to develop alternatives to antipersonnel mines, whether they are technological or doctrinal alternatives.  He was Commander in Chief, but they largely ignored him.  Eighteen years later, it needs to be done.  Not at some unspecified time in the future, but by a reasonable deadline.  It can be done. 

I am not so naïve to think that a treaty will prevent every last person on Earth from using landmines.  Bashar Assad used poison gas, but look at the political price he paid.  Are those who oppose the landmine treaty so dismissive of the benefit of outlawing and stigmatizing a weapon, like IEDs, that poses a danger to our own troops?

Rather than opposing a treaty that will make it a war crime to use landmines against our troops, why not support the mine breaching technology they need to protect themselves?

Mr. President, I always come back to the photographs.  I have met many people like these.  They may not be Americans, but what happened to them happens to thousands of others like them each year.  We can help stop it.

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