Monday, September 21, 2009

United States Should Sign Treaty Banning Antipersonnel Landmines

Thomas Jefferson was a humanitarian far in advance of his time, standing out among the great men of his age for his constant advocacy on behalf of prisoners-of-war and civilians caught in war zones. In 1779, in a celebrated letter to Patrick Henry, dealing with British prisoners-of-war captured at the Battle of Saratoga, Jefferson said, "It is for the benefit of mankind to mitigate the horrors of war as much as possible."

The amelioration of human suffering was a key element of the Age of Enlightenment in which Jefferson lived. The Founding Fathers tried to infuse America with Enlightenment values as they created it. The early 21st Century is, in many ways, a more brutal and less civilized time than was the 18th Century, and 21st Century Jeffersonians have a responsibility to do everything they can to alleviate suffering in our time, just as Jefferson tried to do in his.

One cause of great human suffering in our age is the deployment of massive numbers of antipersonnel landmines during conflicts in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and Latin America during the 1980s. These devices are specifically designed to maim rather than kill, the sickening logic being that it requires an enemy to spend more resources caring for a badly-wounded soldier than to dispose of a dead body. Vast swaths of land remain infested with these minefields, usually long after the conflict for which they were deployed had ended.

Every week, hundreds of people are maimed and killed, many laid decades before for use in conflicts long since over. Almost all the people being killed by landmines today are innocent civilians with no connection to any combatant force. A very large proportion of those injured or killed are children.

Adding to the miserable human toll are numerous other costs. Landmine fields often prevent refugees from returning to their homes after the end of a conflict, hindering the economic redevelopment which might prevent a future war. Livestock are often killed by landmines, contributing to poverty and starvation. The long-term negative impacts of the deployment of antipersonnel landmines, both direct and indirect, boggles the imagination.

On December 3, 1997, 122 countries came together in Ottawa and signed a comprehensive treaty banning the production and deployment of antipersonnel landmines. Since then, many nations in Africa and Asia have made great progress in clearing their minefields, returning the land to productive use, and allowing people from war-torn regions to begin to rebuild their lives. The total number of countries that have signed the Ottawa Treaty now stands at 156. The movement to free the world from the scourge of antipersonnel landmines represents one of the most glorious episodes of the last few decades of human history.

But despite innumerable requests, the United States of America has refused to sign the treaty. Indeed, antipersonnel landmines are still being produced in American factories.

The fact that America has not joined the movement to ban antipersonnel landmines would have shocked and saddened Jefferson. He would have seen is as a failing of the American people and a black mark on the honor of the United States. Having an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of humanity, yet not taking it, is a failure of us to live up to the Enlightenment values on which the country was founded.

It is high time for the United States to join with the rest of the world, submit its name to the Ottawa Treaty, and join in the effort to rid the world of antipersonnel landmines. Rather than selling weapons to undemocratic regimes, our government should be dispatching teams of specialists to clear landmine fields.

Contact the White House and contact your Senators. Tell them that the United States should sign the Ottawa Treaty, and should do so immediately. Doing so is one more step in living up to Jefferson's vision for what our country can become.

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