In 2006, Javier Gutiérrez Salazar was grazing his livestock outside the small town of San Juan de Arama, Colombia. One of his cows stepped on a land mine buried in the field. The intensity of the explosion severely injured the then-30-year-old former soldier, tearing away parts of his body, including sections of his vocal chords, abdominal region and genitals. The devastating physical and deep psychological effects of the incident have completely changed his life and are a continual torment. Sadly, his story is just one of many throughout the Americas and the world.
[IMGCAP(1)]About 5,000 people a year, the majority of them civilians, are killed or maimed by anti-personnel land mines scattered across the globe. Land mines are arbitrary by nature — they do not discriminate between the footstep of a combatant in the battle ground and that of a child at play. Their toll is devastating, and the consequences of their use are felt well after hostilities cease.
This is why the Organization of American States welcomes President Barack Obama’s recent decision to conduct a comprehensive review of United States’ policy on land mines.
The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, better known as the Ottawa Convention or Mine Ban Treaty, prohibits the manufacture, trade and stockpiling of these weapons.
While 158 nations have ratified the 1997 international treaty, the single most powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere has yet to accede, arguing that it would not be able to meet its national defense needs or security commitments to allies if it became party to the convention.
However, new warfare technologies available today can help bring the United States into compliance with the treaty, while also allowing it to respond to threats and address its force protection issues. What’s more, the United States has not used anti-personnel land mines since 1991, exported them since 1992 or produced them since 1997.
The OAS was one of the first regional organizations to endorse the Mine Ban Treaty and to encourage all of its member states to ratify or consider accession in order to ensure its full and effective implementation.
For more than 19 years, the OAS has coordinated a comprehensive international program to remove thousands upon thousands of anti-personnel land mines that posed a threat to civilians in countries affected by conflict. Thanks in large part to OAS efforts, four member states — Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Suriname — have completed their mine-clearing programs. In April of this year, Nicaragua joined its Central American neighbors in making that region a mine-free zone, completing a nearly 20-year national effort to eliminate land mines from its territory. OAS operations continue in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, while other nations of the region, such as Venezuela, Chile and Argentina, carry out their own mine-clearing efforts.
Calibrated to the needs of each country, the OAS is directly involved in a wide-ranging set of initiatives: supporting land mine clearance, mine risk education, victim assistance and reintegration of formerly mined zones for farming and other productive activities — providing secure and hopeful opportunities for communities once plagued by these hidden killers.
The United States has championed this unique hemispheric initiative. It has been the largest supporter to the OAS’ humanitarian work; by providing more than $25 million in funding and about $13 million worth of in-kind contributions since the OAS program began in 1991.
Multidimensional security is a main focus of the hemispheric body. At this year’s general assembly, where the member states come together to discuss the most pressing issues of the region, under the topic of “Peace, Security, and Cooperation,” the continuing problem of land mines will undoubtedly be addressed.
Almost every nation in the Americas has demonstrated a strong commitment to solving the global land mine problem. Thirty-three countries of the Americas have ratified the Mine Ban Treaty. However, only the United States and Cuba remain outside the official parameters of the treaty.
Last week, 68 Senators — more than two-thirds of the Senate and a filibuster-proof majority — signed a letter to Obama urging him to submit the treaty for ratification. The bipartisan effort led by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) represents the most recent and most encouraging opportunity to bring this important issue back to the forefront of debate and reaffirm the United States’ commitment to improving the security of millions of people around the globe. This will be a significant step toward the goal of a world free of anti-personnel land mines and the unintended tragedies that result from them.
The OAS strongly supports the hemisphere-wide enactment of this treaty and welcomes the Senate’s broad and proactive effort push to ratify the treaty. The United States has always been a key advocate for removing the dangerous leftover land mines and has played a crucial role in making the Americas safer.
Washington can now be part of a permanent solution and not simply rest on its well-earned laurels. Helping to coalesce broader international consensus on such an important matter would not only represent a moral imperative in the protection of the innocent, it would also provide an invaluable opportunity for this nation to affirm its leadership on one of today’s most pressing humanitarian and security issues.
Jose Miguel Insulza is secretary general of the Organization of American States.