Release of the Annual To Walk the Earth in Safety Report

Special Briefing
Thomas M. Countryman
Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Washington, DC
November 17, 2016

MR KIRBY: Hello guys. Today I’m happy to bring up to the podium Tom Countryman, who is our Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. Tom’s going to talk about the newly published report, “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” which I think you guys have in front of you. That’s an annual State Department report that documents the United States commitment to conventional weapons destruction.

So with that, I’m going to turn it over to the acting under secretary. We’ll take a couple questions. As before, I’ll stand over here to the side and moderate. Please identify who you are, who you’re with, and then I think we got time for a couple after you’re done. He’ll have a brief opening statement.

MR COUNTRYMAN: Thanks very much, John, and good afternoon to you. I am very proud today to announce the release of the 15th edition of the publication “To Walk the Earth in Safety.” This is a powerful report. It chronicles the progress that we have made in reducing the global threat posed by landmines and other conventional weapons. In my own travels in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Angola, I’ve personally seen how these programs are saving lives and helping countries recover from conflict. And it is all due to the generosity of the American people.

Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2.6 billion to clear or destroy landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other dangerous conventional weapons and munitions. We’ve done this in more than 95 countries. We are helping post-conflict communities to recover and to rebuild.

Now, this publication, “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” not only gives very detailed information about our programs; it makes clear, with real cases, the difference that these programs are making in the lives of countless people. We work together with the host nations, with other countries that donate generously, with the nongovernmental organizations and contractors who actually perform the work of clearing landmines. And in this way, we have turned one-time battlegrounds into land for agriculture, for homes, for vital infrastructure.

Colombia, for example, remains one of the most landmine-affected countries in the world. Joint demining operations conducted by the Colombian Government and by the FARC have helped to build trust between former enemies, and also facilitated community access to land that was once marked by explosive hazards. Now, clearing landmines is a difficult and a dangerous process. And it goes slowly. But the Colombian people know that the United States, Norway, and other members of the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia will keep with it.

In Angola, we’ve invested more than $124 million since 1995 to dispose of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and aging Cold War era weapons and munitions. This assistance, primarily implemented through nongovernmental organizations, has drastically reduced civilian casualties and has given more Angolans the chance to go home and to live there safely. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done.

When President Obama was in Southeast Asia this fall, he noted that Laos was per-person the most heavily bombed country in history. And he promised to double our spending for unexploded ordnance clearance, committing $90 million over the next three years. And this support makes a difference all over the world. These programs produce tangible results, and they support regional stability. In the Sahel, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania, they help to play a key role in shaping and sustaining a more peaceful and democratic world. Our efforts in the Kyrgyz Republic to clear unstable, old ammunition, to provide medical rehabilitation to landmine survivors in Zimbabwe – these help pave the way for broader humanitarian assistance and stabilization efforts.

We support these programs not just because it’s the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective; we support them because they are in the best interests of the United States. They are critical to advancing security and stability, to helping war-torn countries break the cycle of violence, to help them to recover, to thrive. They build tremendous good will for the United States, and they enable us to work with countries where in the past our relations were limited.

When people can walk the Earth in safety, they can rebuild their communities. They can tend their fields. They can safely transport goods to market. Without these programs, development and reconstruction stalls, and the anger and resentment that contributed to the violence in the first place has a grounds to recover. Our efforts – the U.S. Government and all of our partners – are crucial to help building a more safe, secure, and prosperous world, and that’s why the conventional weapons destruction effort of the State Department have tremendous support across multiple administrations and from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

So I want to applaud not just our own efforts but all the countries that donate and all the organizations that put people in the field, everybody who has helped to make it possible for the inhabitants of the Earth to walk safely and run safely and to play and work safely.

So I’m happy to take a few questions, and I also want to introduce a friend I’m very proud of. Stan Brown is the director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and both today and in the future a great point of contact for you for further details. So thanks for this opportunity, John.

MR KIRBY: Thank you. Questions? Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah, just a couple very briefly, two. One is do you know – and I haven’t had a chance to look through this whole report yet. I saw – I’ve seen some of it. But when – in your programs that are going around clearing mines and UXO, what the percentage is that you find that are American-made or supplied? Do you – is that a statistic or a figure that you guys know?

MR BROWN: That’s not currently a statistic that we track specifically. It varies country to country, and we find that a lot of them are foreign-made.

QUESTION: Right, okay. And then secondly on the Ottawa Convention, where does the Administration stand on that?

MR COUNTRYMAN: For those of you who don’t know, the Ottawa Convention bans the production and use of anti-personnel landmines. The United States is not a party to this convention. However, we have previously announced that we will observe the key requirements of the Ottawa Convention with the exception of on the Korean Peninsula. We’re not producing anti-personnel landmines. We’re not selling them. We’re destroying those that are not needed and exploring every alternative in collaboration with our ally, the Republic of Korea, in order to find alternatives for the defense of the Republic of Korea.

QUESTION: So I guess my question is then: How is that quest for alternatives going? And do you have an – do you know how many anti-personnel landmines there are on the Korean border?

MR COUNTRYMAN: I’ll turn again to the expert. Stan.

MR BROWN: The opportunity to look for material and operational solutions, that rests over in DOD. They’re working very diligently to come up with solutions that would put us in a position to accede in the future. The – I don’t have the exact figure for what is needed specifically for the protection of the Republic of Korea, but we can follow up and get that for you.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.


QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. In 19 – a few years ago, President Obama made a policy pledge to join the treaty before the end of his term. Could you – how likely is – are we going to see that happen? And also, could you please update us? I know the next meeting is going to happen the end of November in Chile. Is any delegation from the United States going to be attending as an observer, and what would be the goal?

MR COUNTRYMAN: All right, I’ll make two points and then Stan will correct me. First, what President Obama said is that we want to create the conditions under which it’s possible to accede to the treaty. Specific security conditions on the Korean Peninsula meant that although we embraced all parts of the treaty for the great majority of the world, we were not in a position to accede. And as Stan Brown just explained, we are working on getting to a point where we could in good conscience fulfill all of the convention’s requirements.

We have participated actively throughout the Obama Administration in all of the review meetings under the Ottawa Convention, and I’m sure we’ll do the same in Chile this month.

QUESTION: What is the level to attend the next meeting in the end of November in Chile?

MR BROWN: Say that one more time?

MR COUNTRYMAN: Who. How high a level.

MR BROWN: The – we’ll send two representatives down as observers. The head of delegation will be Mr. Steve Costner. He’ll be the deputy director for our Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

QUESTION: What is the goal? I mean, do you – will you be coming to the goal of 2025 of global – clearance of global demining?

MR BROWN: We support the efforts ongoing with much of the international community with the goal of 2025 that was stated in Maputo. We have been attending as an observer nation for the Ottawa Convention meetings since Cartagena, I think, in 2009. We’ll continue to do so. The goal is, again, to further the basic principles of the Ottawa Convention, even though we’re not in a position to accede at this time. We work very closely with the international community, other nations, on reducing the threat that landmines pose to civilians, and we’ll continue to do that, and we’ll stay engaged in that discussion.

MR KIRBY: Any other questions?

MR COUNTRYMAN: And I’d just add, regardless of whether or not we can meet that 2025 goal, I’m very proud, and I think the American people ought to be proud, that no other nation has contributed more to the clearing of landmine and other explosives than the United States.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, Tom.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, everybody.

MR COUNTRYMAN: Thank you all very much.

QUESTION: But on that – and no one is – I don’t think anyone would dispute that or say that it’s a bad thing, but you mentioned in your opening comments that your president, when he was in Laos, noted that it was the most bombed country per-person in history. Now, it was the United States that did that bombing, was it not? So, I mean, my question is aimed at isn’t it a moral – so isn’t there a moral argument that you should be the leading contributor to efforts to clear mines and UXO?

MR COUNTRYMAN: There is a moral argument that, as Americans, we have to do the same thing that we have done in so many other areas. Whether the issue is disease or poverty or access to water, we have a humanitarian impulse in the United States. And we have worked on landmines without reference to whether those landmines were emplaced by – or bombs were emplaced by the United States or the Soviet Union or a U.S. ally or a Soviet ally or in a local conflict. And that’s the right way to approach it. We don’t do it out of guilt. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s saving lives today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR BROWN: Just one.

MR COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, please.

MR BROWN: One further comment there. What we see is great support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, and one of the things that they put into the managers’ statements is that we will orient our funding to cleaning up U.S.-caused UXO first.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

MR BROWN: Obviously, part of that is legacy issues in Southeast Asia, and we’re working very diligently there. But the majority of the unexploded ordnance and landmines around the world are not U.S., not U.S.-oriented or not U.S.-built. So we can – as Under Secretary Countryman just said, we work very diligently around the world to clean up unexploded ordnance, landmines, help secure ammunition and weapons, so that we can protect civil society.

QUESTION: Right. Do you have any rough idea – I realize you couldn’t say how much was American-made or supplied, but do you have any – and you said a lot of it is foreign, but do you have any idea? Is it half and half? Is it 60-40? Is it – is there any way to tell?

MR BROWN: I don’t want to speculate to say because it varies so greatly, depending on where you’re working.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Is there one country that’s particularly more responsible than other countries for the landmines in the world?

MR BROWN: I don’t have an answer for that. I mean, it varies by different producers. There are different producers to landmines. But I don’t have that off the top of my head.

QUESTION: It wouldn’t be like the Soviet bloc or anything, would it?

MR BROWN: I cannot answer that.

MR COUNTRYMAN: I’m not sure what you mean by “responsible.”

MR BROWN: Right.

QUESTION: Well, they made them and they laid them.

MR COUNTRYMAN: How about produced it?

QUESTION: Produced them.

MR COUNTRYMAN: That’s a question we may be able to research for you.

MR BROWN: Right.

QUESTION: I’d be interested in the answer.


MR KIRBY: All right. Thank you, gents.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thanks very much.