Senate pushes Obama administration to sign treaty banning land mines

By Craig Whitlock and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

More than two-thirds of the Senate is urging the Obama administration to consider signing an international treaty that bans land mines, reviving a dormant campaign from the 1990s that left the United States divided from its closest allies.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in an interview Friday that 68 senators had signed a letter to President Obama to support a "comprehensive review" of U.S. policy on land mines. The letter is an indication that there are enough votes in the Senate to ratify the treaty -- at least 67 would be required -- if Obama signs the measure, which has languished in Washington for a decade.

"We want to show we have enough people to ratify a treaty," Leahy said. "I think there's an excellent opportunity that we'll finally do it."

The pressure from Congress leaves the White House in an awkward position as it tries to navigate between Obama's desire to work closely with allies on security issues such as nuclear disarmament, while at the same time listening to advisers at the Pentagon, many of whom are leery of such campaigns.

The mine ban treaty was the result of a grass-roots movement championed by celebrities, including Princess Diana, and ordinary citizens such as Jody Williams, a Vermont native who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her role as founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. About 5,000 people a year -- the majority of them civilians -- are killed or maimed by mines scattered across 70 countries.

Neither President Bill Clinton nor President George W. Bush signed the treaty, which was negotiated in 1997 and took effect in 1999. Their rejections left the United States at odds with more than 150 countries that embraced the accord, including every member of NATO.

The treaty prohibits the manufacture, trade and stockpiling of land mines. The United States has not used anti-personnel mines since the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and stopped producing them in 1997, but the military keeps about 10 million of them in reserve.

In November, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly announced that the Obama administration had decided against signing the treaty, saying, "We would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies." But after Leahy and human-rights groups condemned the decision, the State Department said it would revisit the issue and conduct a broader policy review.

White House and State Department spokesmen emphasized Friday that the administration is in the midst of a comprehensive review, cutting across all affected agencies, that will not be completed for some months. But two senior U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity indicated that the administration is actively looking for ways to come into compliance with the treaty without endangering national security needs.

"We are asking that if you come into compliance, what would be the costs and the benefits -- and if there are costs, how can they be addressed in other ways," one senior official said.

The official described the administration's review as "a herculean effort" intended to "cut through reflexive reactions" to the issue of eliminating land mines from the Pentagon's arsenal.

Officials also said they welcomed the indication of bipartisan support represented by the Leahy letter.

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