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Another chance to bury the scourge of land mines

Lloyd Axworthy was foreign minister of Canada from 1995 to 2000.

An important diplomatic opportunity has opened for Canada in recent weeks. There is now growing interest and accompanying pressure for U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to finally bring the United States in as a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty banning the use of land mines.

This would fulfill a special Canadian objective going back to 1997, when the treaty was still under negotiation in a preconference meeting in Oslo.

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As final touches were being debated and clauses were being finalized, prime minister Jean Chrétien and I felt that there was now a package that would overcome objections from the U.S. military while holding true to the elements of the treaty. So we began an intensive effort of conversations with U.S. president Bill Clinton and senior officials of his administration who were very open, in some cases enthusiastic, at the prospect of joining us.

To allow time for these conversations to succeed, I instructed our delegation in Oslo to work for a day's extension of the negotiating period. This brought unfounded allegations from certain NGOs in Oslo that we were going to water down the treaty provisions.

Fortunately, other middle-power countries who were our allies in the treaty-making process, along with major non-governmental players like the International Red Cross, saw the value of bringing the Americans aboard and supported the extension.

That gave us 24 hours to work the diplomatic hot lines, and by early evening, word came back from Washington that Mr. Clinton was ready to come onside. (He had previously called for a land mine ban at the United Nations General Assembly.) But the Pentagon pushed back, and by 11 that night, the President had backed away. It was a serious disappointment. Having the United States as a treaty member would have been a significant addition and put pressure on other big power holdouts.

As it is, the Ottawa Treaty has become one of the international community's most effective arms-control agreements and a clear protector of innocent people from the risk of death and maiming. The rate of casualties from these hidden killers has fallen 60 per cent since the treaty came into effect. Thousands of hectares of land have been cleared, stockpiles have been destroyed and mine victims have been rehabilitated. And to its credit, the United States has played an important role in making the treaty work, spending billions of dollars on demining and victim assistance.

The Obama administration has now taken steps to become even more closely engaged. In June, "the United States took the step of declaring it will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel land mines in the future, including replacing existing stockpiles as they expire," the White House announced. A spokeswoman said Washington is considering steps that would allow it to eventually join the treaty.

This has been followed up by strong calls by the The New York Times and other publications for the United States to sign the treaty. Patrick Leahy, head of the U.S. Senate's judiciary committee and a long-time advocate of banning land mines, gave a floor speech in March calling for Mr. Obama to submit the treaty for ratification.

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This political ramp-up has been reinforced by revelations that the Syrian government has been using land mines. Meanwhile, heavy spring rains in the Balkans dislodged thousands of mines from the ground in that formerly war-torn region, a serious hazard for flooded residents.

The point is that while significant progress has been made, there is a long way to go before the world is free of this scourge. U.S. participation in the treaty would go a long way to accelerate action toward that goal – which takes us to Canada's unfinished diplomatic business and the chance we have to be actively onside in the promotion and facilitation of the U.S. becoming a full signatory. We recognized at the outset of the treaty discussions that such participation would add tremendous weight to the effort, and came very close to seeing that happen. The Obama administration's apparent willingness to consider that possibility reopens the door.

Canada should be offering every assistance. As the author of the Ottawa Process that brought about the treaty, I urge Canada to use its diplomatic presence and work in collaboration with both Washington and U.S. advocates to reinforce the move toward full engagement. The current Canadian government's relations with the Obama administration have been proper but not close. The land mine issue is an opportunity to make common cause with the President and successfully reach a goal we set more than a decade and a half ago.

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