Landmines on the Road to the White House?
For many of us the discussions around the primary race have been painful, pitting friends against friends, or asking those of us who have worked as anti-racist and feminist activists to pick one side when we see them as deeply intertwined strands of working for justice.
Yet – for me – there are a set of core issues that outrank dueling economists and endorsements. And those issues – for me – are founded in a sense of what a civilized nation does or does not do.
If you’re a friend of mine, or a fan of "Get Your War On," you probably know how important the issue of cluster bombs and landmines is to me.
Over 150 nations have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. It pains me that our great nation has not. But in the autumn of 2006, there was a chance to take a step in the right direction: Senate Amendment No. 4882, an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill that would have banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.
Senator Obama of Illinois voted IN FAVOR of the ban.
Senator Clinton of New York voted AGAINST the ban.
Rees, who donates all author royalties from GYWO to MDC#5, an Afghan mine clearing team, explains the horror of landmines and clusterbombs:
Cluster bombs and landmines are particularly terrifying weapons that wreak havoc on communities trying to recover from war. They are fatal impediments to reconstruction and rehabilitation of agricultural land; they destroy valuable livestock; they disable otherwise productive members of society; they maim or kill children trying to salvage them for scrap metal.
The vote on S4882 was seen as an important step in moving the US away from support and use of these weapons, weapons which kill many more civilians than combatants:
Some members of Congress are beginning to question the use of cluster munitions, particularly in and around civilian areas. During the 109th Congress, on September 6, 2006, Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) introduced S. Amdt. 4882 to the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations bill (H.R. 5631), to “protect civilian lives from unexploded cluster munitions.” The amendment was cosponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), and would have prevented funds from being spent to acquire, utilize, sell, or transfer cluster munitions, unless the Pentagon ensured that the munitions would not be used in or near any concentrated population of civilians, whether permanent or temporary. Unfortunately, the amendment was rejected by a vote of 30 – 70.
This legislative attempt continued an effort throughout the 1990s to get the US to sign on to a ban on landmines. In 1996, the Clinton administration had refused to sign on to such a ban, instead opting for continued use in Korea and preservation of the right to use “smart” landmines. Sen. Leahy said at the time:
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: The administration today is announcing a policy which is not a step forward but a step backward. I’m concerned about that. The fight to ban land mines will continue, but I’m afraid that instead of the most powerful nation on earth, the United States, leading that fight, we’re going to have to step off the field and allow Canada, Germany, Australia, Belgium, and other countries that have done away with use of land mines to lead the fight for a permanent international ban.
President Clinton never did fulfill his tentative pledge to eventually move to a ban on landmines leading Human Rights Watch to note:
President Bill Clinton has not fulfilled his pledge, first made in 1994, to lead the world to a total ban on antipersonnel landmines. (snip)
While laudably increasing resources for humanitarian mine action programs, President Clinton has not summoned enough political will on his watch to ban antipersonnel mines. Instead, he has deferred to a military that has agreed only reluctantly to get rid of the weapon six years from now, and then only if their conditions are met at that time.
The president has in essence left the decision to ban antipersonnel mines and join the Mine Ban Treaty to the next administration, or the one after that. By postponing the decision to join the treaty until 2006, the president has ceded leadership and abdicated responsibility on a crucial humanitarian issue that he in no small part personally brought to the attention of the rest of the world.
During the Bush administration, the US has continued to refuse to sign a global ban on landmines, instead increasing some funds for mine clearing but also
- Allowing for indefinite use of landmines in Iraq and other conflict areas, and
- Establishing international acceptability for "smart" landmines, which most other countries cannot afford to develop.
Which brings us back to the 2006 Amendment 4882 and a vote that Rees describes as follows:
Analysts say Clinton did not want to risk appearing "soft on terror," as it would have harmed her electibility.
I’m not a single-issue voter. But as Obama and Clinton share many policy positions, this vote was revelatory for me. After all, Amendment No. 4882 was an easy one to vote against: Who’d want to risk accusation of "tying the hands of the Pentagon" during a never-ending, global War on Terror? As is so often the case, there was no political cost to doing the wrong thing. And there was no political reward for doing the right thing.
But Senator Obama did the right thing.
Is Senator Obama perfect? Of course not. Nobody who voted for 2005’s wack-ass energy bill is perfect. Nobody who voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act is perfect.
But of the two remaining Democratic candidates, one decided her vote on Amendment No. 4882 according to a political calculation. The other used a moral calculation.