Remarks at the To Walk the Earth in Safety Event

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
December 8, 2014

Puneet, thank you very, very much.  That’s a lot of years you and I have been journeying together.  And as Puneet said, I did get to know him pretty well when he worked on the Hill for then-Senator Joe Biden and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and I’m really pleased he’s over here now.  Puneet has never shied away from taking on the tough issues we were just talking about – Iran, which he was greatly focused on when he was working on the National Security Council.  And I’m very, very happy that he’s come over here to take on this important bureau and the mission of this bureau.

I also want to welcome Perry Baltimore, the Marshall Legacy Institute, and all of our NGO partners who are here with us today.  Thank you for being here with us, dog included.  (Laughter.)  All of you – men, women and canines – are on the ground carrying out the day-to-day, vital work of demining.  And I understand you’re going to see a little demonstration from our friend over here.  I don’t know where she went, but anyway, I got a photograph with her so – (laughter) – I’m feeling great.  But you’re going to see a mine-detection demonstration in action.  And as many of you know, I have my Yellow Lab upstairs frequently here, and given what’s happened to my furniture at home, I don’t think he’s ready for prime time like the dogs you’re going to get to see today. 

But today, we are really, really pleased to be here carrying out the legacy work of war and the legacy work of conflict.  And the report that we are issuing today, the release of our 13th annual To Walk the Earth in Safety Report, this details the efforts to rid the world of the lasting impacts of landmines and other deadly remnants of war.  I personally can remember the impact, the lethality of landmines from the time when I was serving as a naval officer in Vietnam, and every day we heard stories about or talked with soldiers who were on the ground facing this, or on occasion when we were on the ground, had to maintain a vigilant watch on the river banks and canals of the Mekong Delta for floating mines and mines that had been planted in the fish stakes of the rivers that we had to pass through, or often in the villages.  And we looked for antipersonnel mines hidden in discarded C-Rations, sometimes booby traps that were made from old artillery shells stuffed with explosives and wrapped in wax and bamboo, and on occasion we were hit by underwater mines which were exploded remotely during the time when we would pass through.

So I learned something about the insidious nature of these instruments of battle.  But what makes landmines a humanitarian concern for all of us now is that they plague innocent men, women, and particularly children, decades after soldiers laid down their weapons and leaders made peace.  And these weapons can lay dormant for years, many people obviously not even knowing they’re present, and then innocent people wind up being killed or maimed without a moment’s warning.  I visited, as Puneet said, with those kids in Cambodia and elsewhere – courageous kids whose whole lives are ahead of them, not even in a conflict at the moment, and suddenly double amputees and facing extraordinary hardship.  The battle against these and other lasting remnants of war is critical, and in 2013, I’m proud to tell you that fewer people were killed and injured by mines and other explosive remnants of war than in any other year since the turn of the century. 

And the United States, we can proudly say, has played a very important role in this.  Since 1993, we have been a leading contributor to the international demining efforts, providing more than $2.3 billion in assistance to over 90 countries in order to deal with this.  We’ve helped clear former mine fields so that preschools can be built in Sri Lanka.  With our assistance, children once tethered to trees so that they wouldn’t wander out into the killing fields now pass through large areas of countryside without fear in Angola.  And we’ve helped 15 countries, from Honduras to Tunisia to Rwanda, to declare themselves free from the impact of landmines. 

Americans should be proud of these accomplishments because we have played a key role in bringing them about, and we should all hold our heads high knowing that through the work that we have engaged in, we have made a measurable difference in the lives of millions of people. 

But much work still remains to be done, including regarding our own stockpiles.  In September, President Obama brought us one step closer to the goal of a world free from anti-personnel landmines when he announces that the United States would no longer use anti-personnel landmines outside of those that are placed in a defensive position in the Korean Peninsula.  He also declared that we will begin destroying our anti-personnel landmine stockpiles not required for the defense of South Korea.

Last year in Bogota, I witnessed firsthand the work being done by the United States and our international partners in government and civil society.  I met with soldiers and police officers wounded by mines that were left during Colombia’s bloody conflict.  I actually wound up engaging in a sitting volleyball game with some of them, and was amazed at the energy and dexterity with which they would move around and carry on a pretty lively sports competition. 

Many of the men and women that I met that day had lost limbs and bore the scars of the explosions of mines that changed their lives forever.  No one should suffer that fate.  No human being should be afraid to go out and fetch firewood.  No traveler should fear to just wander down a hillside path.  No mother should worry that her child is going to run around and play, but might be blown up and never to return safely from school or from an afternoon of innocent frolicking. 

Fifty-three years ago, President Kennedy set for our nation the goal of sending a man to walk on the moon.  We did that.  Today, we reaffirm our resolve to help all people everywhere to be able to walk safely, right here, on Earth.  So I thank you for your commitment to this really important endeavor.  Not a lot of people know this is going on.  That’s one of the reasons were issuing this report and why we wanted to gather today.  We can celebrate an enormous amount of progress and recommit ourselves to the task ahead, and I’m confident that with your good help we will rid this planet of landmines.

Now, I turn the proceedings over to Assistant Secretary Talwar, and I know he’s going to be prepared to answer any questions that you may have.  Thank you.  (Applause.)