By Jasper Craven for The Times Argus
WASHINGTON — Sen. Patrick Leahy, an avid photographer, believes in the old adage that a picture is a worth a thousand words.
So when the Vermont Democrat began a series of Senate floor speeches in March on the indiscriminate damage done by land mines, he displayed a series of chilling photos of land mine survivors — some of which he took — to reinforce his message.
“The picture tells a lot,” Leahy said last week on the Senate floor, pointing to a photo of a young land mine victim relearning to walk while clutching two plastic bannisters. “She’s learning to walk on artificial legs, so life has been made immeasurably harder because of a land mine that probably cost less than two dollars.”
After examining the photo for a few seconds, Leahy looked back at the Senate president. “I have a granddaughter not much older than that,” he said.
Leahy has been pushing for the United States to join an international land mine treaty since 1992. He’s met with every President since Bill Clinton about joining the anti-land mine treaty, called the Ottawa Convention.
More than 160 nations have ratified the treaty, but a handful of nations have held out, including the U.S., China, and Russia.
Military leaders have been steadfast in their belief that banning land mines outright could sacrifice their forces’ effectiveness in future skirmishes. In March, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey called land mines an “important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces.”
The U.S. military has roughly 3 million land mines stockpiled, but hasn’t deployed any in more than 20 years.
The White House has been largely silent on the issue, though President Barack Obama as a fledgling senator from Illinois supported Leahy’s effort.
But after Leahy met with Obama a number of times regarding the weapons and delivered four brusque floor speeches this year criticizing the country’s lack of moral leadership on land mine policy, the White House signaled June 27 that the U.S. would no longer produce or acquire land mines.
“The only reason Obama is doing anything is singularly because of Leahy leaning on him,” said Bobby Muller, the founder of the International Campaign to Ban Land mines, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama spoke to Leahy before the formal announcement to let him know the good news. Leahy believes the move is significant but falls short because the administration didn’t go so far as to announce it would sign the treaty.
“People are terrified of giving up any weapons even if they are never going to use them,” Leahy said in an interview. “But I’ll keep pushing.”
Casualties from land mines have generally decreased since nations began outlawing their use in the 1990s. But in 2012, when the Syrian government deployed cluster mines against rebels, 190 casualties were reported internationally, the highest number in more than a decade.
The Land Mine and Cluster Munition Monitor, an anti-land mine initiative, estimates that more than 54,000 people have died from land mines through the end of 2012.
Leahy’s work on land mines has spanned more than two decades. The Leahy War Victims Fund, which was established in 1989, allocates $10 million annually for health care to disabled victims of violence. And in 1992 Leahy penned a bill to prohibit the export of land mines, the first law of its kind.
To get passage of his 1992 bill, Leahy collaborated with DC Comics to produce a Batman book titled “Death of Innocents: The Danger of Land mines.” He placed a copy on each senator’s desk before the vote on his bill, which unanimously passed.
Leahy’s relentless work in the Senate was a catalyst for the international treaty, which he helped launch in Ottawa in 1996. Lloyd Axworthy, the former foreign minister of Canada, was another key player in producing the treaty.
“Technically, we’ve been adhering to much of Ottawa for a long time,” said Jamie Hathaway, a land mine victims advocate who founded Clear Path International. “There should be a strategic discussion about joining the treaty, but it should have ended a long time ago.
“We have the smartest military in the world,” Hathaway added. “We don’t need to use the dumbest weapon.”
In their June announcement, the White House declared its intention to eventually sign the Ottawa Convention, but gave no specific timetable. If Obama does decide to sign the treaty, the Senate will vote on its official ratification.
Leahy has already assembled a strong bipartisan bloc of supporters if the vote comes to the floor. In 2010, Leahy got 68 Senate signatures on a letter imploring Obama to join the convention; treaty ratification only requires 67 “yea” votes.
“Senator Leahy has been the most forceful and clearest voice in America, and a leader internationally, in urging the United States to join 161 other countries that have signed a treaty outlawing land mines,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who signed the 2010 letter, said in a statement Thursday. “Vermonters should be proud that Senator Leahy has pushed our country in the right direction.”
Leahy has employed a number of tactics to gain support for the issue. Muller said Leahy’s passion to eradicate land mines is so genuine that politicians cannot easily argue against him.
“He has gone to these hell-holes around the world and seen the tragedy playing out,” Muller said. “He would revisit those moments in his mind when he was talking to senators, and tears would well up in his eyes.”
“Politicians knew he genuinely cared about this issue,” Muller said, “so they deferred to him.”
Leahy has been to Nicaragua, Bosnia, Vietnam and other countries afflicted with leftover land mines. He has gained bipartisan support by bringing both Republicans and Democrats on these trips. He also often travels with his wife, Marcelle, who is a registered nurse.
“Marcel will go right into the operation rooms,” Leahy said. “One time in Africa she helped the nurses who were changing bandages.”
Following the White House announcement, a number of Republicans declared opposition to banning the weapons.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, offered an amendment that would deny funding to implement the treaty should it be ratified.
“What we want to do is stigmatize anybody who uses these weapons,” Leahy said. “But you can’t really do that if you are the country yourself that won’t join the treaty.”