Pope Urges End to Land Mines: U.S. takes a few steps closer to ban in Mozambique

Landmines wound innocent civilians, "prolong war and nurture fear" long after conflicts have ended, Pope Francis told delegates working on the full implementation of an international treaty banning the production and use of anti-personnel mines. "Reduce the stockpile of weapons! Ban weapons that have no reason for existing in human society and instead invest in education, healthcare, saving our planet and building societies marked by more solidarity and brotherhood," the pope said in a written message to representatives at the treaty review conference in late June.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent the message in the pope's name to the conference in Maputo, Mozambique, a nation that in the early 1990s became a symbol of the tragedy of landmines and their effects, particularly on children killed or maimed when they went into a mined field. The victims of landmines, the message said, "carry—on their bodies and in their lives—signs of an inhumane weapon, an irresponsible weapon, a weapon of cowards."

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For civilians in former war zones, "the environment around them is a constant threat when it should be a source of fruitfulness, development and the joy of living."

Cardinal Parolin said Pope Francis offered his encouragement to all those working for a total, global ban on landmines and he urged the international community to put the treaty into effect immediately.

Pope Francis, he said, urges all countries to commit themselves to the destruction of all existing mines and a complete ban on their production "so that there are no more victims of mines" and so that "no child must live in fear of mines."

The Ottawa Treaty, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention opened in December 1997,  which comprehensively bans antipersonnel landmines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims, has been signed by 161 U.N. member states; among the 35 hold-out nations are the United States, Russia, China, Syria, Egypt and Iran. The Clinton administration in 1997 set the objective of joining the treaty in 2006, but the Bush administration reversed course in 2004. But at the conference in Mozambique the United States took a few tentative steps closer to the land mine ban. It announced on June 27 that the United States "will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines in the future, including to replace existing stockpiles as they expire."

U.S. officials indicated that the statement does not represent the final outcome of the landmine policy review initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, but is an interim announcement as “other aspects” of the landmine policy “remain under consideration.” The U.S. Department of Defense has been tasked with conducting a detailed study into alternatives to self-destructing antipersonnel mines—which are prohibited by the treaty—and the impact of pledging to make no further use of the weapon.

A spokesperson from the Obama administration's National Security Council said, "Our delegation in Maputo made clear that we are diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention—the treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of APL [anti-personnel mines]. They also noted we are conducting a high fidelity modeling and simulation effort to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of APL. Other aspects of our landmine policy remain under consideration and we will share outcomes from that process as we are in a position to do so.  

The spokesperson, Caitlin Hayden, added, "The United States shares the humanitarian goals of the Ottawa Convention and is the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action, providing more than $2.3 billion in aid since 1993 in more than 90 countries for conventional weapons destruction programs. We will continue to support this important work, and remain committed to a continuing partnership with Ottawa States Parties and non-governmental organizations in addressing the humanitarian impact of APL."

“The U.S. has finally come out of the shadows in indicating it intends to join the landmine treaty, and let’s hope it will move ahead rapidly to come on board,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, and chair of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of more than 400 nongovernmental organizations. “This is an important acknowledgement that the treaty provides the best framework for achieving a world free of deadly antipersonnel mines.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the Maputo announcement does not preclude the United States from using self-destructing antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world as has been U.S. policy since January 1, 2011. HRW reports that the U.S. stockpile is believed to consist of approximately 9 million self-destruct antipersonnel mines.

“It makes no sense for the U.S. to acknowledge the weapons should be banned because of the humanitarian harm they cause while retaining the option to use them for years to come,” Goose said. “The U.S. should set a target date for joining the Mine Ban Treaty, should commit to no use of the weapons until it accedes, and should begin destruction of all its stockpiles.”

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