A Conversation with Landmine Advocate Dr. James Cobey

I recently had the opportunity to have a long and free-form conversation with Dr. James Cobey, one of the architects of the Mine Ban Treaty.  As an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Cobey has worked with landmine victims and amputees in Cambodia, Thailand, the Gaza Strip, Haiti and elsewhere in a long career with the American Red Cross, the United Nations and in private practice.  Dr. Cobey was part of the three-person research team that produced Coward’s War: Landmines in Cambodia, written by Eric Stover of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) (Physicians for Human Rights).  Coward’s War served as a seminal document in the founding of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Later, Dr. Cobey (with Adam Kushner) wrote Measuring Landmine Incidents and Injuries and the Capacity to Provide Care, the authoritative guide for conducting landmine injury surveillance to assist governments and NGOs to understand the victim assistance needs in their countries (Physicians for Human Rights).  When the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize along with its coordinator, Jody Williams, Dr. Cobey was among those selected to represent ICBL at the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway.  Dr. Cobey is also a founding board member of Health Volunteers Overseas and remains active with Physicians for Human Rights, including participating in demonstrations against indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Dr. Cobey is a raconteur in the finest tradition and it was my pleasure to listen to him tell his stories and try to keep up. In the course of our chat we covered a range of topics including Guantanamo Bay, the Republican candidates for United States President, social media and its uses, the evolution of the mine ban movement from landmines to cluster munitions to small arms, parenting, and the best way to cook duck (Dr. Cobey is an avid hunter and brought, as a gift, two ducks he had shot and a bottle of Alsatian white wine that my wife and I should drink with the ducks).  Two parts of the conversation stand out and I will let Dr. Cobey’s words speak for themselves.


“I was always taught to use the words, not ‘anti-personnel mines’, but ‘anti-people mines.’ Just as a PR thing, ‘anti-people mines,’ not ‘anti-personnel mines;’ the same word, ‘APM.’ A guy from Colombia came up with that term.”

Anti-personnel mine is a very specific term, defined in the Mine Ban Treaty, which loses some of the flavor for what it really does.  An “anti-personnel mine” is a legal construct that lives in international law; an “anti-people mine” is an evil weapon that destroys lives.  In this context we also discussed Claymore mines and the Spider Networked Munition System, tossing about the terms “command-activated” versus “victim-activated;” “ant-personnel mine” versus “anti-tank mines.”  These specific terms lose a little something in their repetition which is why “anti-people mine” resonates: it’s human-focused and reminds us of what these things really do and all landmines are ultimately “anti-people mines.”


“A lot of people in the Army, in the Defense Department, I’ve noticed, are very pro what we’ve done with landmines. I lobbied the Undersecretary of Defense back before the lame-duck session [in 2010].  The State Department are all behind the [Mine Ban] Treaty. I went over to the Pentagon with Physicians for Human Rights with [PHR’s Washington Director, John] Bradshaw, a lawyer on the staff, who has the contacts. I had to send over my CV first; I sat down next to this Undersecretary or Assistant Secretary of Defense; he had worked with Human Rights First, on the board for a long time [possibly Frank Kendall, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics].  [The Department of Defense official said to Dr. Cobey], ‘This is a different kind of Defense Department, isn’t it?’  He said, ‘Dr. Cobey, I read your CV, I’m very impressed with what you’ve done.’ And he was all behind us [on the Treaty]. And I made the discussion to him, that the reason for doing [signing the Mine Ban Treaty], is no other country will change unless we change.  I was in Georgia, eight or nine years ago, and we discussed with all these generals from Armenia and Georgia, and their response was, ‘If the United States needs [landmines], the best military in the world, we do too.’  They are all copying us as a model, that’s their excuse. And he said, ‘We’ve got to do something. We’ll get Gates involved and things will happen.’ But then you had the 67 votes in the Senate and we thought we’d made it. But then you also had to get the arms control treaty [New START]. And that came up to the lame duck session and that had to get through and Obama had to give a lot away on [New START] just to get that through.  Now I don’t know how many votes in the Senate we’ve got.  But the Administration is behind it, Samantha Power [White House advisor on Multilateral Organizations] is behind and most of the Defense Department are behind it now. But we’ve got this problem; you don’t want to submit it to the Senate until you get 67 votes.  You want to get your votes lined up first.  You don’t want to be voted down… I don’t think Obama dare take a very soft stand on any issues right now. At least until the election’s over.”

Dr. Cobey has remained active in lobbying the US government to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty, but despite the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) who drafted a letter to President Obama co-signed by 68 Senators (USCBL, pdf), the Administration has not made signing the Mine Ban Treaty a priority.  The US participated in the most recent Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty in Phnom Penh as an observer, but the Administration has yet to complete its review of the country’s landmine policy (USCBL, pdf).  The current US government policy on landmines is the one released under the Bush Administration in 2004 (State Department).  But Dr. Cobey’s words are re-assuring: senior leadership at the Pentagon are supportive of the Mine Ban Treaty, a stance that past Defense Departments had not shared, but the Obama Administration is not willing to submit the Mine Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification until after the 2012 elections and only if the necessary votes are there.  Once the Administration’s review of the US landmine policy is completed, we’ll have a better sense of exactly how the Pentagon views landmines and the Mine Ban Treaty, but the continued pursuit of the Spider Networked Munition System and recent large-volume orders of M18A1 Claymore mines suggests that the Pentagon isn’t completely ready to renounce landmines.

Michael P. Moore, January 13, 2012

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