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After an agonizing five-year wait, the US announced the initial results of its landmine policy review on June 27, the final day of the Mine Ban Treaty’s Third Review Conference in Mozambique.

Questions and Answers paper issued this week by Human Rights Watch unpacks the three new elements of the new policy, namely:

  • An immediate ban on US production or acquisition of antipersonnel landmines;
  • A new Defense Department study of alternatives and of the impact of making no further use of antipersonnel mines; and
  • A promise that the US is “diligently” pursuing solutions that “ultimately” will allow the US to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty, or—as the US prefers to call it—the “Ottawa Convention.”

The policy is an important acknowledgement that the Mine Ban Treaty provides the best framework for eradicating antipersonnel mines. For the US Campaign to Ban Landmines—the coalition of non-governmental organizations that is chaired by Human Rights Watch—the policy is a step in the right direction, but falls far short of what is needed to ensure that landmines are never used again. Senator Patrick Leahy, the leading congressional proponent of the Mine Ban Treaty, described the new production ban as “incremental” but “significant” because it “finally makes official policy what has been informal fact for a decade and a half.”

The US has not produced antipersonnel mines since 1997, and budget documents indicate no plans to produce them in the future.

As part of the announcement, the Pentagon disclosed that the US has an “active stockpile of just over 3 million anti-personnel mines.” The pledge to no longer produce or otherwise acquire antipersonnel mines includes a specific commitment not to replace mines “as they expire in the coming years.” This raises the question of when that will be as the policy precludes the US from extending or modifying the existing stockpile.

In response to a journalist’s question about the shelf-life of the existing antipersonnel mines, a Defense Department spokesperson said, “We anticipate that they will start to decline in their ability to be used about — starting in about 10 years. And in 10 years after that, they’ll be completely unusable.”

The US reserves the right to use its stockpiled antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world until then.

Since January 1, 2011, under the terms of a Bush administration policy review, the US has been permitted to use only antipersonnel mines that self-destruct and self-deactivate. These are remotely-delivered mines, scattered over wide areas by aircraft, artillery, or rockets, and equipped with a self-destruct feature designed to blow the mine up after a pre-set period of time. The treaty also bans these mines because of the dangers they pose to civilians.

Despite having the option, the US has not seen a need to use antipersonnel mines of any kind for more than two decades. With one exception: As part of the policy announcement, the US revealed that since 1991 it has used “a single munition in Afghanistan in 2002.”

While affirming support for the new policy, the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that landmines remain “a valuable tool in the arsenal of the United States,” noting that the new policy “protects current capabilities while we work towards a reliable and effective substitute.”

Concerns regarding the possible need for the US to use antipersonnel mines in the event of an invasion by North Korea emerged over the course of the review. To overcome them, the new policy has tasked the Defense Department with conducting “a high fidelity modeling and simulation effort to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of anti-personnel landmines.”

The cost of yet another study has to be questioned as over the past 20 years, the US has spent more than $1 billion on systems that could be considered alternatives. During this time it has fought a wide range of conflicts, both high- and low-intensity in a variety of environments, and has demonstrated that it can employ alternative strategies, tactics, and weaponry without having to resort to antipersonnel mines.

The US military has refrained from using antipersonnel mines in part because the broadly ratified Mine Ban Treaty has stigmatized these weapons. Most US allies are among the 161 states that are party to the treaty, and the prohibition on assistance with activities banned by the treaty has likely contributed to the lack of US use of these weapons.

The White House press secretary said the new policy signals “our clear aspiration to eventually accede to the Ottawa Convention” and described this as “a notable adjustment of U.S. policy.”

Under President Bill Clinton, the US participated in the 1996-1997 Ottawa Process, but did not sign the treaty and instead set the goal of joining in 2006. That objective was abandoned in 2004, when the George W. Bush administration announced a policy that rejected both the treaty and the goal of the US ever joining.

So the new policy by the Obama administration once again sets the goal of US accession, but without saying when that might happen. US officials have described the policy announced on June 27 is an interim or initial announcement that does not represent the final outcome of the review that began in 2009.

That final decision should include submitting the Mine Ban Treaty to the Senate for its approval, a ban on the all use of antipersonnel mines, and accelerated destruction of all US stocks. Watch this space.

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