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As President Barack Obama begins his second term, several challenges loom that will define his legacy on globally banned weapons. A key question is whether the United States will finally embrace the 1997 treaty that comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel landmines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims.

Landmines claim lives and limbs in dozens of countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Colombia and Iraq. They have been described as 'soldiers that never sleep' because once laid they remain lethal for years, even decades. Landmines cannot distinguish between soldier and civilian and, claim victims including children at play, farmers working their fields, and women collecting firewood.

Over the past two decades US policy on antipersonnel landmines has had its ups and downs. Back in 1994 at the United Nations, President Bill Clinton became the first world leader to call for the "eventual elimination" of antipersonnel mines and in 1997 his administration set the objective of joining the Mine Ban Treaty in 2006. The Bush administration reversed course in February 2004 and announced that the US did not ever intend to join the treaty. But then in December 2009, a State Department official confirmed that the US had begun a comprehensive landmine policy review "initiated at the direction of President Obama".

Until the current policy review is completed, the Bush administration policy remains in place, permitting the US to use self-destructing, self-deactivating antipersonnel mines. Under this policy, the US may no longer use antipersonnel mines that do not self-destruct – sometimes called 'persistent' or 'dumb' mines – anywhere in the world, including in South Korea. It has been destroying its stockpile of these mines.

Yet the Mine Ban Treaty bans all antipersonnel mines, regardless of the self-destruct feature, as these so-called smart mines are also unable to distinguish between civilians and military targets and are not fail-safe. Even though the US has not joined the treaty, its last recorded use of antipersonnel landmines was more than 20 years ago, during the 1991 Gulf War. The US has had an export ban on antipersonnel mines since 1992. There has been no known US production of antipersonnel mines since 1997.

So the US is already acting like it has given up antipersonnel landmines, but these actions need to be confirmed in a declared policy. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Obama should feel confident that US national defence needs and security commitments can be met without resorting to these indiscriminate weapons.

Since the US policy review began, the administration has received letters or statements of support for the Mine Ban Treaty from 68 US senators, 16 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, key North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies, senior military veterans, dozens of leaders from non-governmental organisations, victims of US landmines, demining experts, and more than 200,000 concerned Americans. Fellow Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams has urged Obama to "earn" his status as a laureate by making landmines history.

Nearly all US allies have already banned antipersonnel mines and thus the US would not be able to use them in coalition operations. A total of 161 countries are party to the Mine Ban Treaty. Members include all European Union countries, all NATO members except the US, all nations in sub-Saharan Africa, all countries in the western hemisphere except Cuba and the US, many countries in the Asia-Pacific, and several nations from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Mine Ban Treaty has been a rousing success and having the US join would help ensure it remains so. Since the treaty went into effect on March 1, 1999, more than 46 million stockpiled antipersonnel mines have been destroyed, 23 countries have completed mine clearance to become mine-free, and the annual number of casualties from landmines and explosive remnants of war has decreased dramatically. In recent years, antipersonnel landmines have been used only by Syria, Burma, Israel, and Libya, none of which have joined the Mine Ban Treaty, as well as a small number of rebel groups.

Ratification of the Mine Ban Treaty by the US would need approval by two-thirds of the Senate, but Obama could also take some immediate steps using his executive powers. He could turn the export moratorium that has been in place since 1991 into a permanent ban; announce a permanent ban on production; accelerate destruction of the millions of stockpiled mines; and most important, end the use of self-destructing antipersonnel mines. The US needs to accept that the world has moved on and there is no longer a place for antipersonnel mines.

Mary Wareham is the advocacy director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines

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