The United States will not attend a major review conference next week about a 1997 international treaty on land mines because of the cost of participation and disagreement with crucial elements of the pact.
In making the announcement yesterday, the State Department said the decision should not be seen as a sign of U.S. indifference to the problem of land mines.
"We share common cause with all those who seek to protect innocent civilians from indiscriminately used land mines," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said.
The conference, starting Monday in Nairobi, will review compliance with the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines. The pact, ratified by 143 countries, bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines and stipulates that mined areas be cleared within 10 years.
The United States, China and Russia are among 51 countries that have not ratified the treaty.
U.S. humanitarian demining programs have cost almost $1 billion over the past decade. Key target countries have been Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Lincoln Bloomfield, the State Department's top official on land mines, said the administration decided it could not justify using tax dollars to support the Nairobi conference. The meeting, he said, "will have obviously a political platform that is not our policy."
Sending even an observer delegation to the conference would have required the United States to pick up 20 percent of the cost, consistent with a U.N. formula, Bloomfield told a small group of reporters.
Conference organizers estimated the U.S. cost at somewhat more than $100,000, a figure deemed unrealistically low by the State Department, another official said.
He said the United States would have had to pick up part of the cost for rental of the meeting site, translation services, catering, publications and subsidies for participation by some poor countries, the official said.
Bloomfield said one problem with the Ottawa Convention is that it would take all anti-personnel mines out of the hands of U.S. soldiers, even weapons with safety features that would deactivate them after a few hours or days.
That makes the land mine a weapon used only in wartime and not a hazard to civilians after a conflict, Bloomfield said. Absent such weaponry, U.S. or allied forces could be at risk in wartime, along with the civilian population that the forces were trying to protect, he said. At present, the United States does not maintain land mines anywhere in the world.
In February, President Bush backed away from a Clinton-era policy of giving up all anti-personnel mines by 2006, assuming the Pentagon could develop an alternative by that time. The new policy allows indefinite use of mines with deactivation features on the assumption they pose little threat to civilians.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a leader in the fight to ban land mines, called the policy "a deeply disappointing step backward." Leahy was not available for comment yesterday on the administration's decision not to attend the Nairobi conference.