updated 2/27/2004 11:36:55 AM ET 2004-02-27T16:36:55

The Bush administration announced Friday it intends to make all U.S. land mines detectable to American forces and scrap those that are not timed to self-destruct. But it will not join the 150 nations that have signed an anti-land mine treaty.

Land mines with timing devices are relatively safe and “have some continuing utility for our armed forces around the world,” Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield said while affirming U.S. opposition to the international accord.

Bloomfield said the treaty fails to deal with eliminating land mines that are designed to disable vehicles. With its new policy the Bush administration becomes the first nation in the world to set out to scrap all land mines that are not automatically disabled and will encourage other countries to follow the example, he said at a news conference.

'Persistent' mines targeted
The process of getting rid of so-called “persistent” land mines — those not preset to become inoperative and cause an estimated 10,000 casualties a year —— will begin in two years with the aim of completing the program by 2010, Bloomfield said.

“We can and will prevent unnecessary harm,” he said. But he said other land mines will be retained as a deterrent on the Korean peninsula where they are under the control of South Korea.

The policy shift rules out retaining any land mines that are not timed to be disarmed. At the same time, though, the Clinton administration’s goal to have the treaty signed by the United States in 2006 if conditions are right is being supplanted by outright opposition to joining the international accord.

The decision to get rid of land mines that are militarily useless and make all land mines detectable by U.S. authorities and automatically defuseable — or “smart” — is designed to lessen the danger of people and vehicles accidentally tripping over hidden mines in countries such as Afghanistan and Cambodia.

A total of 11,700 people, including 2,649 children, were reported killed by land mines in 2002, according to a report in September by The International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The United States, Russia and China are among the 47 countries that have not signed the treaty, on which Canada took the lead.

The administration, like its predecessors, considers land mines a useful deterrent to attack — on the Korean peninsula, for instance. As a result, those land mines that are retooled to become inoperable may be reset before they self-destruct if they are judged to have a continuing, significant military purpose, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The announcement included a decision to double to $70 million what the United States spends annually to locate and remove mines considered hazards to people and serving no deterrent purpose.

Bloomfield said there were an estimated 60 million land mines in 60 countries, most of them planted by countries other than the United States.

Human Rights Watch reaction
Stephen Goose, executive director of the arms control division of Human Rights Watch, praised the plan to increase spending for mine clearance projects. But he said the United States was isolated by its insistence on using land mines in its defense programs.

“We have a great deal of momentum everywhere else around the world. The U.S. is the only country in NATO that hasn’t banned this weapon. We have a situation where the U.S. is undermining the international norm against this weapon,” said Goose, who said he was informed by the State Department on Thursday about the new policy.

Goose said that U.S. goal for a decade has been to move toward the point where it could eliminate all anti-personnel mines.

“This is a goal that has been embraced by the entire world. But it’s a goal that the United States has now given up on. They now say they want to use some types of anti-personnel mines, the so-called smart mines that self-destruct, anywhere in the world in perpetuity,” he said.

Democratic senator unhappy
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a leading opponent of land mines, said although there are some positive aspects of the policy, “on the whole it is a deeply disappointing step backward.”

“This is another squandered opportunity for U.S. leadership on a crucial arms control and humanitarian issue,” he said. “Worst of all, in a sharp departure from past policy, it says the United States will continue using land mines indefinitely.”

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in getting the treaty approved.

The treaty went into force on March 1, 1999, bans the stockpiling of mines and requires each nation to destroy its stock within four years.

Jody Williams, who shared the 1997 Nobel prize with the group she helped create, said in a telephone interview with AP Radio that the latest move “is yet another indication of the Bush administration’s total disdain for international law.”

In early 2001, a Pentagon-commissioned study said advances in technology could lead to alternatives to anti-personnel land mines that would pose fewer risks to civilians. But it said that not all of these emerging technologies were likely to be ready by 2006, a target set by the Clinton administration for the United States to decide whether it should approve the treaty.

Former President Clinton said land mines were a necessary deterrent that protected South Korea from the North. Thousands of mines lie in the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

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