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Obama to phase out land mine use

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — After two decades of waffling, the United States on Friday announced its intention to join an international treaty banning land mines, without setting a time frame while working through possible complications on the Korean peninsula.

Human rights advocates applauded the progress, but said the Obama administration should immediately commit to a ban and begin destroying its stockpile, while Republicans accused the president of disregarding military leaders who want to maintain land mines in their arsenal.

For years, Washington has resisted efforts to ban land mines outright, citing a need for them to deter North Korea from crossing the Demilitarized Zone into South Korea. While the government is changing its policy on land mines, it remains committed to defending South Korea, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told the Military Times.

The 15-year-old Ottawa Convention includes 161 nations that have signed on to prohibit the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

President Bill Clinton had a goal of joining the treaty, but the Bush administration pulled back amid objections from military leaders. President Obama ordered a review of the policy when he arrived in office five years ago, and an American delegation announced the change in position on Friday at a land mine conference in Maputo, Mozambique.

“We're signaling our clear aspiration to eventually accede to the Ottawa Convention,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States has no land mines deployed around the globe but maintains an active stockpile of a little more than 3 million.

“They are all in inventory, and that's where they will stay,” Kirby said.

He added that the stockpile will begin to expire in about 10 years and will be completely unusable in about 20 years.

Hayden wrote in an email to Military Times: “Any changes to our landmine policy with respect to the Korean peninsula would be made only after close consultation with our South Korean ally.”

But the Obama administration's announcement was criticized by the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who cited recent testimony by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that land mines are an “important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States.”

“The president owes our military an explanation for ignoring their advice and putting them at risk, all for a Friday morning press release,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said: “The president's land mine policy seriously weakens the United States at a time when threats to the nation are on the rise.”

Kirby said he would not speak for Dempsey specifically, but that senior civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon had a “robust discussion” on the policy and fully support the administration's announcement.

The United States has given more than $2.3 billion in the past two decades to more than 90 countries to remove mines and other conventional weapons and to aid victims. In 2010, the Obama administration stopped the use of “persistent” or “dumb” mines that do not disarm and can remain a danger to unsuspecting locals for years.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been pushing Obama to sign the treaty in a series of speeches from the Senate floor since March, including one on Tuesday in which he spoke next to a large picture of a Vietnamese girl who lost her legs in a mine accident. Leahy said the U.S. announcement is incremental but significant, and he will continue to push Obama to sign the treaty before he leaves office.

“The White House once and for all has put the United States on a path to join the treaty,” Leahy said. “An obvious next step is for the Pentagon to destroy its remaining stockpile of mines, which do not belong in the arsenal of civilized nations.”

Physicians for Human Rights director of programs Widney Brown said the announcement is “a step in the right direction, but we remain concerned about anything less than a full commitment to sign the Mine Ban Treaty as soon as possible.”

Steve Goose, head of a delegation for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, said the United States should at least set a target date to join the treaty.

“While they are saying they are working toward banning them in the future, they are leaving open the option of continuing to use them in the meantime, which is kind of a contradictory way to approach things,” Goose said from the Mozambique conference. “They're bad enough to ban them, but we still want to use them.”

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