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US Should Think Again About Reversing Landmine Policy

Published in: Just Security
“Selma,” pictured here, and her daughter, were injured in a border minefield. “Selma”’s leg was amputated as a result of the injury. © 2014 Sarkis Balkhian/Human Rights Watch

The Trump administration announced Friday that the United States will re-start using and producing antipersonnel landmines.

The decision rolls back a 2014 policy by the Obama administration to ban U.S. production of antipersonnel mines and their use outside of the Korean Peninsula. It reverses years of incremental U.S. steps to align with the “Ottawa” treaty banning antipersonnel landmines, which entered into force on March 1, 1999.

The widespread outcry over the move reflects how deeply these indiscriminate weapons have been stigmatized since 1997, when the Mine Ban Treaty was adopted. The number of people around the world who are killed or maimed by landmines has steadily decreased, from tens of thousands each year to approximately 6,800 in 2018, according to the Landmine Monitor report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Where the age of victims was recorded, more than half of the casualties were children, most born years, often decades, after the mines were laid.

The United States has not used antipersonnel landmines since 1991, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since 1997, and has destroyed millions of mines from its stockpiles.

The new policy relies on antipersonnel mines equipped with self-destruction mechanisms and self-deactivation features, yet the Mine Ban Treaty makes no such distinction. It comprehensively prohibits all types of victim-activated devices regardless of their method of manufacture or predicted longevity. Even mines that are designed to self-destruct or deactivate are no better able to distinguish civilian from combatant.

The new policy follows the U.S. retreat from multilateralism and its dismissal of several arms agreements. In December 2017, the Trump administration ended a 2008 policy that committed the U.S. not to use unreliable cluster munitions and to destroy its stocks. Cluster munitions typically disperse multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area. Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving lethal remnants that, like landmines, posed a danger until they are cleared and destroyed.

A senior Pentagon official, Victorino Mercado, claimed a current malfunction rate of “six in one million” for U.S. mines, but the Defense Department has not responded to questions from The Washington Post and others asking how this number was calculated. The estimate most likely reflects the testing of electronic components as opposed to the actual deployment of completed weapon systems.

The last time the U.S. used antipersonnel mines anywhere in the world was during the first Gulf War, when U.S. aircraft dropped more than 100,000 self-destructing mines in Kuwait. A report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that U.S. commanders were reluctant to use the mines because of their impact on mobility, their potential for causing casualties to U.S. or friendly forces, and other safety concerns. The Defense Department has provided no data to indicate, either directly or indirectly, that the U.S. landmine use caused any enemy casualties, equipment loss, or maneuver limitations. Many of the mines failed to self-destruct and required costly clearance and destruction measures.

A total of 164 nations have signed or ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, including every member of NATO except the U.S., and key U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan. The treaty’s prohibition on assistance with use and other activities banned by the treaty has most likely contributed to the lack of U.S. use of antipersonnel mines over the past 30 years. Over the coming months and years, U.S. allies will most likely continue to raise such considerations.

The U.S. has limited stocks to draw on. In 2014, the Pentagon disclosed that the U.S. has an “active stockpile of just over 3 million anti-personnel mines in the inventory.” In 2010, it estimated that the shelf-life of batteries in the existing stockpile of antipersonnel mines would expire between 2014 and 2033.

The U.S. last produced antipersonnel mines in 1997, when it manufactured 450,000 ADAM artillery-delivered and 13,200 air-dropped CBU-89/B Gator mines. It has spent years on a costly, but as yet unresolved, search for “alternatives” to antipersonnel mines. Any such devices must be command-detonated or have a “human-in-the-loop” to be permitted under the treaty.

Upon announcing the new policy, defense officials said the U.S. retains enough of an inventory of so-called “smart landmines” that there is no need to restart production immediately. And while there have been discussions about where the landmines could be used, officials said as of yet there had been no requests to actually deploy them.

The new policy is the latest in a series of twists and turns of U.S. policy since President Bill Clinton called for the “eventual elimination” of antipersonnel mines at the United Nations in 1994. It also comes just a few months after Norway hosted the Mine Ban Treaty’s Fourth Review Conference in Oslo.

The U.S. attended the meeting as an observer, but did not speak. In a message to the conference, Prince Harry pledged his continued support to the treaty, which was negotiated in Oslo in the days immediately following the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who drew so much attention to the devastating scourge of landmines during the last year of her life.

During the Ottawa Process to negotiate the treaty, the U.S. tried but failed to secure a loophole to allow for self-destructing and self-deactivating mines. The participating States also rejected U.S. attempts to carve out a geographic exception allowing it to use antipersonnel landmines in the Korean Peninsula. They opposed a U.S. proposal to delay the treaty’s entry into force until all five permanent members of the UN Security Council had joined.

The Mine Ban Treaty survived these killer amendments during the treaty negotiations and continues to thrive 22 years later. Some 55 million antipersonnel mines have been destroyed from stocks under the Mine Ban Treaty, while the number of countries producing the weapons has decreased from more than 50 to less than a dozen.

Under Trump, the Department of Defense is attempting to redefine landmines as “non-persistent area denial systems.” Like “smart mines” and other weasel words, such terminology won’t convince anyone.

Despite not joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the U.S. has never wavered from its first-place ranking as the world’s largest donor of global demining efforts. Such support has helped more than two dozen countries declare themselves free from these weapons, after completing clearance of known mined areas. It has saved countless lives, thereby preventing human suffering from landmines.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the change in landmine policy “an abhorrent decision that won’t make America any safer, and could cause untold damage.” She committed to “reverse this decision and work with our allies to eliminate landmines.” In statements to news outlet Vox, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) also said they would scrap Trump’s policy and revert to the Obama administration policy.

The other presidential candidates should also pledge to reverse the Trump administration’s retrograde U.S. policy on landmines and all of them should pledge to ensure that the United States finally accedes to the Mine Ban Treaty. Demands for the U.S. to ban landmines will never go away until it actually does.

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