State Department Sets Up New Office to Control Some Conventional

The Department of State established a new office in October with the stated aim of improving its ability to aid countries plagued by excess, abandoned, and unexploded weapons. The office consolidates under one roof programs to address landmines, small arms and light weapons, shoulder-fired missiles, and munitions left after conflicts.

The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
will be responsible for helping countries secure weapons that are poorly guarded, cordoning off and cleaning up unsafe areas that may contain buried landmines or unexploded bombs and shells, and destroying arms stockpiles.

Previously, a country seeking U.S. assistance to store or dispose of different types of weapons might have had to go to as many as three separate offices. In theory, a government seeking help will now be able to work with one individual to assess arms destruction and security priorities and strategies instead of having to work with several U.S. officials. For instance, rather than destroying stockpiles of landmines and assault rifles separately, such actions could be done together.

Lincoln Bloomfield, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, explained Oct. 7 that the new office is designed to guarantee that “nothing falls through the cracks intellectually.”

It is also intended to save money through increased efficiency. Having one consolidated program for activities in a country rather than several will cut “administrative expenses and travel requirements, in some cases by as much as two-thirds,” stated John Stevens, a foreign affairs officer with the new office.

These estimated savings will not necessarily result in smaller budget requests for U.S. demining and arms destruction activities, at least in the short term. Stevens said that the new office is asking for funding increases for the next two fiscal years.

Since 1993, the United States has spent more than $700 million on demining activities and is currently supporting such work in nearly 40 countries. Launched just three years ago, the U.S. small arms and light weapons destruction program has spent $8 million to date, destroying more than 540,000 weapons and 75 million rounds of ammunition in 11 countries. Small arms are defined as those that can be used by an individual, while a light weapon is one that requires a small crew to operate.

The new office, located within Bloomfield’s bureau of political-military affairs, which reports to John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has its work cut out for it. Washington estimates that roughly 60 countries have landmines buried in their soil. U.S. priorities will continue to be clearing areas where landmines frequently maim or kill civilians or most greatly disrupt daily living, such as landmines planted near a village’s water source or agricultural fields.

No agreed figure exists for how many small arms and light weapons are in circulation. The United Nations puts the total as high as 600 million.

Washington is focusing its small arms and light weapons efforts on where they have the largest negative impact and where they originate. African countries make up much of the first category, while central and eastern European countries, which have large Cold War-era stockpiles of weapons, are seen as leading sources of the weapons fueling conflicts globally.

In addition to overseeing field activities, the new office will be responsible for U.S. policy on these arms issues. The Bush administration has taken stances on small arms and unexploded ordinance that are at odds with much of the international community, and it is reviewing a past U.S. landmine commitment.

Many countries favoring stricter regulations on exports and ownership of small arms and light weapons accuse the United States of single-handedly sabotaging a July 2001 international conference aimed at curbing the illicit trade in such weapons by rejecting proposals to ban sales to nonstate actors and restrict civilian possession. (See ACT, September 2001.)

Washington also stands alone in calling for a new agreement on cleaning up abandoned and unexploded munitions to be politically rather than legally binding. (See ACT, September 2003.) A final decision on the status of the agreement will be made later this fall when the negotiations are expected to be completed.

On landmines, the Bush administration has been conducting a policy review since the summer of 2001. As part of that review, the administration is determining whether it will honor President Bill Clinton’s May 1998 pledge to end the use of anti-personnel landmines (APLs) outside the Korean Peninsula by 2003 and to join by 2006 the Ottawa Convention, which bans APLs. Clinton conditioned U.S. accession to the treaty on the Pentagon developing and deploying APL alternatives. Richard Kidd, the acting director of the new State Department office, declined Oct. 7 to predict when the review would be concluded.