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U.S. Absent As 89 Nations Pass Treaty Banning Mines

By Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post
OSLO

With empty chairs at the table behind the sign reading "United States," diplomats from nearly 90 nations adopted Thursday the text of a treaty banning the manufacture and use of antipersonnel mines as early as the turn of the century.

As the three-week land-mine conference concluded in an ebullient mood, delegates lined up to comment on the historic nature and the diplomatic achievement of a disarmament treaty that was given little chance of success when Canada launched the process last year.

"Two years ago the idea of an international law banning land mines seemed a distant prospect," said Norway's foreign minister, Bjorn Tore Godal. France's delegate, Joelle Bourgois, called it "one of the rare moments in international life where reasons of state encounter the sentiment of peoples."

The treaty will be forwarded to Ottawa for a formal signing ceremony in early December, with ratification by member nations to follow.

Bosnian delegate Izet Serdarevic expressed sorrow that the United States would not be part of the treaty. "We all needed the power of the United States, among others, to influence other countries," he said.

The swift adoption of the text came after the Clinton administration was frustrated in its attempts to modify the treaty to accommodate its concerns about the security of U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. President Clinton indicated Wednesday that the United States could not be party to an agreement that jeopardized the lives of Americans and Koreans in the last Cold War standoff, describing the use of land mines in the event of a Korean conflict as a "key part of our defense line."

Clinton's pledge, in a Washington news conference, to end unilaterally the use of antipersonnel mines by 2003 everywhere but on the Korean Peninsula, and on the peninsula three years later, was greeted positively here.

"This is a step forward in U.S. policy to declare there is a date by which antipersonnel land mines will no longer be necessary. We've been trying to get the Pentagon to name a date for years," said Stephen Goose of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the umbrella organization of humanitarian groups that was instrumental in marshaling support for the treaty.

But Goose criticized the president's failure to include a controversial category of land mines - antipersonnel explosives scattered around antitank mines to ward off attempts to defuse them - as a "bait-and-switch tactic defining things that have always been acknowledged by the U.S. military as antipersonnel mines as no longer antipersonnel mines so there is no reason to ban them."

Although only 89 countries were official delegates to the Oslo conference, its South African chairman, J.S. Selebi, said he expected the number of nations to sign the convention in Ottawa would exceed 100. Selebi said a number of African and other developing countries could not afford to send delegations here even though they support the treaty. Many nations here as observers will be signatories in Ottawa too, he said.

But many will not. The Russian observer, Boris Shchiborin, told the conference this morning that the treaty "could not be considered as universal" because the views of countries representing nearly two-thirds of the world's population "have not been taken into consideration."

China and Iraq stayed away from the conference; Iran, South Korea, India and Pakistan, among others, sent observers and reportedly are not prepared to sign.

"The total ban on the primarily defensive weapon cannot but affect the inherent right of every state to individual or collective self-defense, since without proper alternatives such a ban would mean excessive losses, including human suffering, among victims of an armed attack," Shchiborin said.

Some critics of the U.S. resistance to the treaty have likened the Clinton administration's views to those of the more notorious rejecters of the pact. "The president is not in good company on this issue," wrote Clinton's former senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, in a Newsweek column that was circulated widely here and used on treaty proponents' banners.

Japan, whose security interests are closely tied to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, said through its delegate that it would announce its decision about signing the treaty "in due course." The delegates from Australia and Turkey, which have been cool to the treaty text, said much the same thing. Kuwait was the only nation to state here outright that it would not be a signatory.