Deminer Bonfacio using a dog to help with mine detection in Manicia province, Mozambique.

© Eva Maria Fischer/Handicap International, June 2014

(Washington, DC) – The Obama administration should drop the Korea exception to its policy banning the use of antipersonnel mines, Human Rights Watch said today, following the conclusion of the annual meeting of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

“There is no compelling justification for future United States use of landmines on the Korean peninsula,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, and chair of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines. “The US should get rid of the Korea exception to its policy banning landmines and finally accede to the international treaty prohibiting these indiscriminate weapons.”

Antipersonnel landmines will not make any difference to the defense of South Korea, Human Rights Watch said. A ban will help protect civilians from these weapons, which have caused so much suffering in Korea and around the world.

The US, North Korea, and South Korea are not among the 162 nations that have joined the Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, which comprehensively bans antipersonnel landmines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims. The Obama administration, in 2014, announced significant policy measures to bring US policy in alignment with the Mine Ban Treaty, which it said the US will join if the Pentagon successfully concludes a study on how to address the “unique situation” on the Korean Peninsula.

The US sought to carve out a geographic exception for Korea when it negotiated the Mine Ban Treaty 18 years ago, but was strongly rebuffed by its allies. The US military wants to retain the option for the US to use antipersonnel mines in the event of an invasion by North Korea. But numerous retired US military officers, including those who commanded forces in Korea, have said that using antipersonnel mines there is of little or no military value.

On September 23, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a ban on US use of antipersonnel landmines everywhere in the world except on the Korean Peninsula. The policy also commits the US to destroy stockpiled antipersonnel mines “not required for the defense of the Republic of Korea” and to “not assist, encourage, or induce anyone outside the Korean Peninsula to engage in activity prohibited” by the Mine Ban Treaty. The policy came after a June 27 announcement banning US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines stating that the US would not replace its stockpiled mines “as they expire in the coming years.”

The US was one of 10 observer countries at the Mine Ban Treaty’s Fourteenth Meeting of States Parties at the United Nations in Geneva, during the week of November 30, 2015. More than 90 Mine Ban Treaty states parties participated. During the week-long meeting:

  • Mozambique declared itself free of landmines after completing the clearance of all known mined areas;
  • Finland declared itself mine-free after completing the destruction of its stockpile of more than one million antipersonnel landmines;
  • Poland committed to destroy the last of its one million stockpiled antipersonnel mines by March 2016, while Oman affirmed its intent to destroy its landmine stocks before its Mine Ban Treaty deadline of February 2019;
  • Sri Lanka announced that, following a change in government, there has been “a paradigm shift” in its landmine policy, and it is now preparing to join the Mine Ban Treaty in 2016;
  • Ukraine repeatedly denied using antipersonnel landmines in its eastern Donetsk and Lugansk provinces and instead blamed Russian-backed armed groups for the new use of landmines there;
  • States parties agreed to mine clearance deadline extension requests by Cyprus, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal.

On December 7, the US abstained from the vote on the annual non-binding UN General Assembly resolution on the Mine Ban Treaty, which was approved 168 to nothing, with 17 abstentions.

According to Landmine Monitor 2015, the global monitoring report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines:

  • Collectively, states parties have destroyed more than 49 million stockpiled antipersonnel mines, including more than 530,000 in 2014. However Belarus, Greece, and Ukraine remain in violation of the treaty after failing to complete their stockpile destruction by their four-year deadline.
  • Since October 2014, government forces of non-signatories Myanmar, North Korea, and Syria have used antipersonnel mines while non-state armed groups have used mines, particularly victim-activated improvised explosive devices, in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Yemen.
  • In 2014, recorded casualties from mines, including victim-activated improvised explosive devices that act as antipersonnel mines and explosive remnants of war, rose to 3,678 casualties, the vast majority civilians, compared with 3,308 victims in 2013. This is still a 40 percent decrease from the number in 1999, when the treaty entered into force. However numerous casualties go unrecorded, so the true casualty figure is likely significantly higher.
  • During 2014, more than 200 square kilometers of land were cleared worldwide, resulting in the destruction of more than 230,000 antipersonnel mines and 11,500 antivehicle mines. Since 1999, 29 countries have declared themselves cleared of landmines, while 57 are still affected by uncleared landmines and explosive remnants of war. Donors and affected countries together contributed approximately US$610 million in funding support for mine action in 2014, a decrease of $30 million (5 percent) from 2013 and the second year in a row that funding support has declined.

Chile will host and preside over the Fifteenth Meeting of the States Parties, in Santiago during the week of November 28, 2016, preceded by the treaty’s intersessional meetings in Geneva on May 19 and 20.

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), chairs the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, and serves as ban policy editor for Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. The ICBL received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, together with its coordinator, Jody Williams, for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.