President Obama is demonstrating that his willingness to tackle the horrors of nuclear weapons has teeth. He and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia announced earlier this month new talks on a treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expires in December. Negotiations will include permanent reductions of their nuclear arsenals beyond any previously agreed upon numbers.
In addition, Obama has put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of the effort for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the Senate. Russia has already ratified that important nuclear treaty.
For this bold leadership - especially coming on the heels of an administration for whom international treaties were an anathema - the president must be applauded. Some of us actively involved in arms control, disarmament, and international humanitarian law also believe that Obama can take further steps to underscore his commitment to a multilateral approach to arms control and disarmament.
The most obvious would be joining both the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The United States did not play a fundamental leadership role in the process that resulted in the Mine Ban Treaty and walked out of the final treaty negotiations. Ten years later the country stood outside the process - officially at least - that created the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The international instruments banning land mines and cluster bombs are hybrids of disarmament and international humanitarian law - the laws of war. Each bans an entire class of weapons. Each rests on fundamental principles of the laws of war about the illegality of indiscriminate weapons and that the “means and methods” of warfare must not have an effect on civilian populations disproportionate to their immediate military gain.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the international treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. The treaty has been called a “gift to the world.” Today 156 nations - 80 percent of the governments in the world - are party to it. Its implementation and compliance has been remarkable - again a tribute to government-civil society partnership and cooperation. A similar model of “new diplomacy,” closely following the template of the Mine Ban Treaty, negotiated a treaty banning cluster munitions in Dublin in May. In December, it was signed in Oslo 94 nations; now it stands at 96.
Obama could show important leadership in joining both treaties; Russia hasn’t joined the treaties either. Why move so boldly on nuclear weapons issues without also eliminating these other weapons that violate the same principles of international law?
Tackling the Mine Ban Treaty first should be easy. The United States has been in virtual compliance with the treaty since long before it entered into force. We have not used antipersonnel land mines since 1991 - the first Gulf War. We stopped their export in late 1992. No production has taken place since the mid-1990s and the US military has forsworn their future production. Some 3 million stockpiled land mines have already been destroyed. Even the argument that we “need them for Korea” holds little weight, since the mines in the DMZ belong to South Korea. Given the above, it would seem that joining the Mine Ban Treaty is essentially all benefit at very little cost.
While the United States does not have the same record on the (non)use of cluster munitions that it has on antipersonnel land mines, that is not a reason for the president to avoid signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Obama made a good first step last month when he signed a law permanently banning nearly all cluster bomb exports from the United States. Some of our closest military allies have already signed the cluster convention, including Germany, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom.
During the invasion of Baghdad, some US commanders refused to use the weapon, recognizing it both as a violation of the laws of war and a weapon that would threaten their own troops as they rapidly advanced through areas already littered with the weapon by cluster munitions strikes.
Reconciling the needs and desires of the military with achieving and advancing larger policy goals is no easy matter. But if Obama is as determined as he says to take on the huge issue of eliminating nuclear weapons, surely he can get rid of land mines and cluster bombs now. These weapons - often described as weapons of mass destruction in slow motion - are reviled by tens of millions around the world. The majority of the countries in the world have already banned them. Surely, it is more than time for the United States to join their ranks.