Sidelined on Human Rights: America Bows Out

Courtesy Reuters

Fifty years ago the United States took the lead in building modern international human rights law. But lately, Washington has been in the public eye for the obstacles it has raised to its further development. American reservations surfaced during the past year in negotiations to ban anti personnel land mines, to prohibit the use of child soldiers, and to establish an international criminal court. In each case, Washington paid lip service to the proposal while U.S. negotiators worked to weaken it. Because of these reservations, the international community has shown a new willingness to bypass the United States in strengthening human rights law.

The negotiations to ban antipersonnel land mines are the most prominent example of this trend. These indiscriminate weapons have appropriately been called weapons of mass destruction in slow motion. Because land mines cannot distinguish between a combatant and a child, they kill or maim an estimated 26,000 civilians annually. In such war-torn countries as Cambodia, Angola, Somalia, and Bosnia, they exact a terrible toll long after the fighting has ended.

President Clinton recognizes the humanitarian cost of antipersonnel land mines and endorses their "eventual" abolition. However, the United States was not ready to support an unconditional ban in treaty negotiations because the U.S. military wants to use land mines to defend South Korea for another ten years. The issue is not mines already in the ground, which the United States would have ten years to remove under the new treaty, but its intention to plant more than one million new mines in the event of a North Korean invasion. The U.S. military also wants to exempt certain self-destructing antipersonnel mines that it uses in combination with antitank mines. Fearing a laundry list of such exemptions, other governments in the negotiations, including NATO allies, rejected any loosening of treaty provisions on antipersonnel mines. One hundred twenty-two governments signed the treaty. The United States did not.


The United States also opposes a ban on children

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