Step lightly is the only conclusion one can draw from the Obama administration’s refusal to sign the international treaty banning landmines. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the administration had decided not to join the 10-year old treaty endorsed by 156 countries. Altogether, 39 countries have not signed on, inclusing Russia, China and India.
Kelly’s comment drew outrage from treaty supporters, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who called the refusal to sign a “default of U.S. leadership,” and contradictory to the White House’s “professed emphasis on multilateralism, disarmament, and humanitarian affairs.”
The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines called Kelly’s statement “shocking,” and anti-landmine groups were sharply critical of the review process, which was conducted behind closed doors without input from NGOs, legislators, or NATO allies who have signed the treaty.
The 1999 treaty bans the stockpiling, production, or transferring of anti-personal mines that caused over 5,000 casualties last year, one third of them children. More than 70 countries are infested with them.
In the face of the uproar over the Obama administration’s refusal to join the ban, the State Department quickly backed off and said the policy review “is still on-going.”
The White House has also resisted endorsing the treaty to ban cluster weapons.
A total of 103 governments worldwide have signed the agreement, but ratification is still working its way through various legislatures and parliaments. Some 30 nations have ratified it, however, elevating the treaty to the level of international law.
The U.S., Russia, and China are the major producers of cluster weapons, and they are stockpiled in at least 77 countries. A number of countries, including Japan and Australia, have destroyed their stocks.
Cluster weapons have a high failure rate—30 percent is not unusual—and the unexploded bomblets lie in wait for unwary civilians. Some 90 million cluster weapons were dropped on tiny Laos during the war in Southeast Asia, and the weapons continue to kill and maim between 100 and 200 people a year.
Many of the 50 million clusters dropped on Kuwait during the first Gulf War failed to explode and, in the two years following the war, killed 1,400 Kuwaiti civilians. Cluster weapons continue to kill and wound hundreds of civilians in Kosovo and Iraq.
The aftermath of war was underlined by a recent study conducted by the Vietnamese military and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation that looked at six provinces near the old demilitarized zone in the country’s north. It found that it would take 300 years and $10 billion to clear unexploded bombs and mines from the region.
Since the war ended in 1975, unexploded ordinance has killed 10,529 people and injured 12,231 in the six provinces.
The Iraqi Ministry of the Environment has found that 42 sites across the country are heavily contaminated with radiation and dioxin. The dioxin is from the widespread bombing of oil pipelines and refineries during the U.S. invasion, and the radioactivity is residue from radioactive depleted uranium ammunition (DUA). Over 500 tons of DUA were used during the first and second Gulf wars.
According to environment minister Narmin Othman, the bombing of pipelines in the Basra area has heavily contaminated the soil with dioxin. “The soil ended up in people’s lungs and has been on food that people have eaten,” he told the Guardian.
DUA is the latest innovation in armor piercing ammunition, and it is widely used in 120mm tank shells, and 30mm cannon shells fired by aircraft. While not highly radioactive, it “has the potential to generate significant medial consequences” if ingested, according to the U.S. Environmental Policy Institute.
DUA tends to vaporize on contact, contaminating food and water supplies with radioactive dust.
While the U.S. claims DUA is not dangerous, birth defects and early life cancers have risen sharply in places like Falluja where the weapon was widely used. “We are seeing a very significant increase in central nervous system anomalies,” Falluja general hospital’s director Dr. Ayman Qais told the Guardian. “Before 2003 [the start of the war] I was seeing sporadic numbers of deformities in babies. Now the frequency of deformities has increased dramatically.”
Admissions for deformities have risen from two every two weeks a year ago, to two a day now. Besides deformities of the head, spinal cord, and lower limbs, multiple tumors have been showing up as well. The Guardian found that in a three-week period, there were 37 abnormal babies born in the Falluja general hospital alone.
CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org