October 11, 1997 in Nation/World

Nobel Prize Lands Clinton In A Political Minefield Russia To Join Land Mine Treaty, Leaving U.S., China As Holdouts

Roy Gutman Newsday
 

Within minutes of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Jody Williams was on the attack Friday, blasting President Clinton for blocking an anti-land-mine treaty embraced by most of the world.

“The main obstacle is President Clinton,” said the Putney, Vt., activist, who won a share of one of the planet’s most prestigious awards. “How can you be a leader if you are not part of the process?” she asked.

Hours after the prize was announced, Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly said Russia would join the treaty scheduled to be signed in Ottawa in December, leaving the United States and China as the major opponents. The award was the latest boost to a campaign that has proceeded at astonishing speed, aided by the vigorous campaigning, and the tragic death, of Princess Diana.

The White House reaction was curt, with spokesman Mike McCurry saying Clinton is “absolutely rock-solid confident that he’s got the right approach” in opposing the ban. However, Clinton is planning to call Williams, McCurry said, adding: “I’m sure he’ll want to find the proper way to congratulate our new Nobel Prize winner.”

Clinton favors a ban on exporting mines but not on using them in some situations, such as on the Korean peninsula. The United States has argued that the mines were the most effective way to protect U.S. troops from an invasion with tanks from the North. The U.S. arguments have found little support elsewhere and Clinton has found himself caught in an awkward position.

The Nobel committee said Williams, 47, who shares the prize with her International Campaign to Ban Landmines, had turned the ban from “a vision to a feasible reality.” Land mines kill or maim 26,000 people a year, most of them women or children.

“It’s a wake-up call for the United States. I would think that Bill Clinton would find it hard to keep saying he’s a leader on this if he doesn’t sign the treaty,” Williams told reporters.

As recently as Wednesday, when Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met top officials in Moscow, Russia’s position was to oppose the Ottawa treaty and instead work with the United States to negotiate a universal treaty to ban land mine exports, U.S. officials said.

The State Department welcomed Yeltsin’s statement as “an important development” that one of the “problem countries” that produces and exports land mines “is considering taking very forward-leaning steps.” But White House officials said they were seeking clarification to determine whether Yeltsin had indeed switched policies without informing his top aides.

Administration officials acknowledged Friday that the campaign for a complete ban of anti-personnel land mines was a runaway success that is no longer subject to U.S. influence, and that previous U.S. efforts, while “certainly well-intentioned,” had won little support abroad.

“What we did not know and could not have known was that Ottawa (the treaty negotiations) would take off like it did,” a senior White House aide said. Last spring, only 40 countries were willing to approve a complete ban on anti-personnel mines, with key European allies such as Britain and France opposed. But both countries replaced right-of-center with left-of-center governments, and with Princess Diana helping stir public support in Europe, the number quickly grew to 100 backers.

Clinton, who previously had favored the much slower moving Geneva Conference on Disarmament as a negotiating forum, did not take an active part in the Canadian-led Ottawa process until late summer, following a policy review in July. But when U.S. delegates brought the American requests for modifications to talks in Oslo, Norway, it was too late for a reason no one could have predicted - the death in a Paris traffic accident of Princess Diana.

“Prior to Princess Diana’s death, we had somewhat encouraging feedback from a number of states on each of our positions. Her death changed the atmosphere,” the aide said.

Officials said the Clinton administration will continue to press for a treaty banning mine exports in Geneva, but they acknowledged the odds were sinking that the talks will begin. They said the United States already had halted the export of mines and unilaterally will boost its support of mine-clearing in Third World countries where they are the scourge of children, farmers and livestock. But because of the strong views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of the Republican-controlled Senate, the United States will not sign the Ottawa treaty for the foreseeable future.


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