Technology & Trade

Good News, Bad News Story from US Landmines Announcement

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Fifteen years after the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force, countries and people around the world are still threatened by the deadly scourge of landmines. To mark the anniversary, governments and civil society met in Maputo, Mozambique from June 23 – 27, 2014 to measure the Treaty’s progress and impact at the Treaty’s third review conference.

More than 1,000 representatives attended the event, many of them eager to hear whether the United States would present an update to its decade-old landmine policy and announce if it would accede to the Treaty.

In its much anticipated statement, the United States announced that it would no longer “produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel munitions…including to replace such munitions as they expire.” The United States also announced that it was looking into alternative technologies to avoid any associated risks that might come with ending the use of landmines. Finally, the United States affirmed its intent to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty at some point in the future after taking these steps.

The US announcement marked a return to the path to join the Mine Ban Treaty that President Clinton had committed to in 1997, but President Bush reversed in 2004 when he stated the US would never join the Treaty. The policy announcement was billed as interim or initial and not the final outcome of the Obama administration’s 5-year landmine policy review, which continues. Yet the announcement failed to explain how the policy review is addressing US use of anti-personnel mines on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere. It also didn’t provide a timeframe for exactly when the United States intends to join the Treaty.

Some of the administration’s hesitation to make a full commitment to join the Mine Ban Treaty stems from concerns over losing the strategic value of landmines, particularly those placed along the North-South Korean demilitarized zone. But as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noted in a statement, former US military leaders reject the notion that South Korean defense cannot be maintained without landmines. Moreover, on June 27 the Pentagon expressed its full support of the United States’ announcement to re-join the track to join the Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits use of all types of anti-personnel mines under any circumstances. 

The United States also revealed in its comments to media that it has used a single antipersonnel mine – in Afghanistan in 2002 – since the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force in 1999. While any use of landmines is ill-advised, the revelation further highlights the depreciating value of this technology. This US disclosure, along with the revelation that the current US stockpile of landmines now totals around three million, demonstrates the value of transparency under the Mine Ban Treaty in creating global norms and understanding about this technology, and signals the administration’s commitment to eventually accede to the Mine Ban Treaty.

US accession to the Mine Ban Treaty is not only consistent with the United States’ commitment to international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, but it also aligns with current US practice. The United States has committed to no longer produce, export, or acquire anti-personnel mines and remains the single largest donor to humanitarian mine action efforts, having contributed over $2.3 billion since 1993.

Despite evidence to the contrary, a very small minority of Mine Ban Treaty opponents continue to undermine the value of the Treaty and the ways in which it has saved lives. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) in a statement said, “Once again, the President makes an end-run around Congress and demonstrates his willingness to place politics above the advice of our military leaders. His announcement today is perfect for a feel good press release but bad for the security of our men and women in uniform. It is truly an expensive solution in search of a nonexistent problem. Irresponsible land mine use by other countries has come at a high humanitarian price, but America isn’t part of that problem. Indeed, we do more than any other country to clean up these irresponsible weapons.” McKeon’s statement ignores the evolved thinking regarding landmine utility from the Pentagon and misrepresents the danger of legacy landmines around the world.

Even though opponents of the Treaty have been vocal in their views, the US statement shifts the US policy closer to the Clinton administration’s original commitment to join the Treaty by 2006. The Obama administration should not miss the opportunity to build from current momentum on the issue and should release the final outcome of its landmine policy review as well as accede to the Treaty before leaving office. 

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flickr

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